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April 7, 2008 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

University Vs. Polytechnic

Should you be at university?
Out of Victoria’s 21,000 students only a small percentage will graduate and an even smaller number will move on to do postgraduate studies. Only 15 per cent of students who enrol in a New Zealand university come out with a qualification. It is a safe bet that most students do not want to be professional academics. University elitism is again rearing its ugly head as Auckland University becomes the first to place all of its courses under the ‘limited entry’ category. Auckland Vice-Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon believes that other New Zealand universities will soon follow suit. The lack of funding is causing Victoria and Canterbury Universities to drop papers from their curriculum. Canterbury has threatened to close its Theatre and Film Departments, as well as the country’s only American studies programme, by the end of the year. Victoria has threatened to reduce film to a subdivision of Visual Culture. With significant changes to the way universities are funded, decreasing graduate numbers, accessibility and practical training (both vocational and creative), a Salient Feature Writer asks the question “Should you be at university?”


A degree is defined by its intensive research and investigative component, and has long been the sole preserve of the university. Then the Nineties brought huge pressure for both tertiary education providers to offer, and prospective students to pursue, degrees. During that decade tertiary education providers were funded based on the number of students they could attract, with more funding for degree courses than diplomas. Some polytechnics cashed in on this system by offering degrees instead of diplomas or certificates. In particular, as universities struggled to attract the highly-skilled, self-taught IT experts who dominated the early years of the computer boom, polytechnics moved in to fill the gap.

Most students have felt pressure to attend university from both parents and high school teachers. Many of this older generation themselves attended university in the era of near-free tertiary education. They came to see university as a privilege too good to pass up, and often fail to realise that as degrees have become more common, they lost much of their prestige. While it is assumed that a university degree means more in the real world, Tommy Honey, the director of The Film School, believes this status is “mythical.” This mythical status was evident when a group of students participating in the Save the Film Department protests were asked what they thought about The Film School. Most participants pointed out the fact it did not offer a degree. Employers in vocational and creative careers such as film will not be impressed by a student “waving around their thesis,” but by “passionate, skilled and level-headed people.” Any graduate can tell you that you will not get the job of your dreams simply because you have a university degree. Honey thinks “No degree is going to give you the motivation, passion and ability to have clear goals.” The real question is whether university can engage in theory that supports practice.

The future at Vic?

Auckland University is restricting entry into all their courses due to changes in the way tertiary education is funded. The Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) no longer allocates funding on a per capita basis. Instead, 60 per cent of funding is now awarded based on research performance, and the TEC expects education providers to agree to set levels of students. Salient asked Vice-Chancellor Pat Walsh if this will happen at Victoria University. His reply was ambivalent. “Victoria is considering how to manage enrolment [to achieve] an optimal size.” Across the board restrictions are prohibited by the Education Act 1989, which means any limitations will be at a programme and course level rather than the standard of entry into university. Walsh added that “some of Victoria’s courses have had entry restrictions for many years,” and any further changes will be a continuation of that process. Pat Walsh said that consideration of course restrictions is due to a “rapid growth” in the student population. Despite his contentions of rapid growth, Victoria’s enrolment is currently at a low. Last year only 2800 people graduated from Victoria University. Although this is a 3 per cent increase from 2006, it also means that if everyone graduated from Victoria University (which they certainly do not) it would take an average of eight years to do so. Walsh insists “the reasons for students leaving before completion are varied.” While some students may drop out because they find that research-based learning is not for them, Walsh admits that others may have been let down, but Victoria University “strives to provide students with enough support.”

University vs Practical Training

Most people assume polytechnics only cater for mechanics and the hospitality industry. In reality, media, arts, design, business, landscape design, animation, fine arts, film, software engineering, audio engineering, prototyping and journalism are all available at polytechnics and private institutions. Spokesperson for Weltec Penny Macdonald believes that for students to be happy in their field of study and attractive to future employers, they need both practical and research skills. To heighten New Zealand’s economic prosperity there has been a push for students to enter skilled rather than academic professions. MacDonald makes clear that both university and polytechnic are valued parts of tertiary education, but polytechnic is “more applied [and] in a shorter period of time.”

“Many parents, teachers, career advisors, and even students” do 18 Issue 6 not really understand what polytechnics and independent training do and what they offer. It is almost considered general knowledge that university is on “a higher level” than polytechnics. Both Honey and MacDonald believe that university is not as “appropriate” for creative fields as society has led everyone to believe. Universities focus primarily upon research; creative subjects are fundamentally practical.

If you leave university after one or two years you are stigmatized as a ‘drop out’ (with a student loan), and your achievements while studying go unrecognized. An advantage of polytechnic is that most degrees are structured so if you leave before you finish you still leave with a qualification. If you leave after a year you have a certificate. If you leave after two you have a diploma. This opens up opportunities to ‘upskill’ while experiencing the workforce.

This also allows students to take breaks from study but actually be able to say to employers they are skilled as well as produce a qualification that breaks down their knowledge and skills. It seems polytechnic institutions take more care in what happens to their students with employment cadetships and internships. Weltec uses employer satisfaction surveys to track the success rate of their students and the relevance of their papers.

MacDonald encourages students to become better informed about tertiary education and not be taken in by the mythical status universities hold, and advises them to “make a more active decision that will make you happy.” She acknowledges that if you do not have a clear idea of what you want to do, university “is very good for that.” MacDonald believes that after completing an undergraduate degree at university you are showing employers “that you have a good mind and know how to learn,” not that you have “specific skills and knowledge.” Vice-Chancellor Pat Walsh says that Victoria University aims to make sure graduates know how to “think critically and have good leadership and communication skills.”

Tommy Honey believes “if you want to learn how to watch a movie go to university,” but if you want to make a movie, polytechnics are better suited to your needs. Honey has a point. Victoria University’s limited film department is about to be fundamentally changed. Honey “really feels for the people” in the Vic film department, both students and staff. Honey believes that Victoria University’s film department “must offer more of a production component” if it wants to continue to be attractive to prospective students. The Film School’s projects include music video, documentary, scriptwriting and short film, all done with modern equipment. One project involves pitching scripts to the tutors. These scripts get narrowed down to 10 development scripts, and four are finally made and submitted to short film competitions. The idea of changing Victoria’s film degree does not impress Honey. “If the film degree is truly valued at Victoria University it should be able to stand alone,” he insists. But he acknowledges that extending the film department’s practical side “would [require] a huge investment,” and access to film-related resources is limited. Honey believes that trying to achieve 300 students in a niche market such as film is not very useful for staff or students. “No point flooding [an] industry that is such a niche market just because it is profitable for us … that is just not sustainable,” Honey argues.

Unless you want to be a lawyer, doctor, or professional academic it is best to ‘shop around’ for a course that suits you best. The problems facing New Zealand polytechnics could be considered graver than universities’ reduced enrolments. Despite this, polytechnics and independent niche market education seem to have a more direct relationship with industry, a supportive environment, and a firm interest in where their students actually end up. It should not be suggested that all universities should take on a polytechnic style of qualification, but certainly a university like Victoria could learn a thing or two from the supposed lower level education providers.


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Comments (9)

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  1. Anon says:

    You bought up some thought provoking points. I disagree with you in some respects but your just 2 damn cute to get into a lengthy internet argument with. And they can get rather tiresome can’t they? I guess if I wanted to read about how valued and relevant my degree is I would read that piece of shit victorious.

  2. Stuart Dent says:

    uh thanks. yeah there are a few holes in the article-things that needed expanding- but I’m glad you thought it was thought provoking…kind of what I was going for.

    But whats the fun in writing something people don’t want to argue with?

    Do i know you? You seem to know me?

  3. Kate says:

    Please don’t become a tragically hip politically retarded salient writer. Stay True! Continue to write about shit that matters.

  4. Sarah says:

    I found your artice really highlighted some very relevant points which are often disregarded. I also really like the fact you noted that leaving Univeristy before you graduate is counted as dropping out. I feel that you have evaluated the facts and written a well rounded article which remains ‘true’ and about something which matters! So thank you for the educated read.

  5. Nic says:

    Best article in Salient this year… and certainly better than anything last year.
    Well done, look forward to more.

  6. Lis Whyte says:

    a very thought provoking and interesting article. Where do you get the 15% figure from?

  7. John MacCormick says:

    An interesting and enjoyable read on an important set of questions – thanks. But its riddled with bogus statistics, and the opinions that follow (yours and your interviewees) are neither supported by or tested against any evidence.
    Here’s your first bogus statistic: “Only 15 per cent of students who enrol in a New Zealand university come out with a qualification.”
    Actually, the “five-year completion rate” in NZ is 48%. (This is the % of students who started bachelor degrees in 2002 who had completed by 2007). That’s higher than for the Polytech “Level 4” certificates (42%) and “Level 5&6” diplomas (33%) that you say people are more likely to complete.

    Not all students enrolled at VUW are enrolled for degrees – many are doing doing shorter “certificates of proficiency” in a few courses, others are in bridging programmes, many are part-time. If you got a 15% completion rate by dividing graduation numbers by enrolments, that’s nonsense.

    Bogus statistic #2:
    “The Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) no longer allocates funding on a per capita basis. Instead, 60 per cent of funding is now awarded based on research performance”
    Actually, about 70% of TEC funding for universities is still paid for tuition on a per-student basis (tho numbers are capped). Research funding was about 25% of government funding and 13% of total income for VUW in 2006 (slightly below the uni sector average), and that won’t move much.

    There’s plenty of info out there showing the value of university degrees – both comparing degrees to lower qualifications, and comparing those who graduate to those who don’t complete. It would be useful to compare the opinions you collect in stories like this with some observable facts.
    First: it really does pay to go to university if you can. Putting the ritual complaints about student loan hardships aside, getting a degree earns you an average $10,000 a year more than completing a polytech qualification – that kinda adds up over the course of a career! Hard to see that many people would really be better off not doing a degree if they are able.
    Second – your point about being stigmatized as a “drop out” is backed up pretty well by the data – except if you are a postgrad student: if you go to university, it really pays to finish your bachelor’s, but finishing a postgrad degree is something to do just for fun.
    Students who complete their bachelor degrees earn 25% more (5 years after completion) than those who don’t complete their degrees. The completion premium is even higher for Maori and for males, lower for europeans and females. But five years on from graduating with a postgrad degree, the average grad will be earning hardly any more than classmates who “dropped out” before completing. (

  8. Stuart Dent says:

    Hey thanks for the feedback,.

    The 15 percent thing may have been bogus but i did read it in research but obviously it was not as a reliable source as i had hoped and it was afew years old which is unfortunate.

    You obviously have close ties to universities and I think you missed one of the main points of the article which is the mythical status of unis… which you feed in to by your hailing of uni of well awesome. A lot of people, including employers ASSUME the university style of learning is higher and better somehow. But it might not be. It makes you think.

    And i NEVER said that people would be more likely to complete a polytec degree…i said a polytech degree is structured better.

    and as for “The Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) no longer allocates funding on a per capita basis.” _ I hate to point the finger but I’m pretty sure that was added by eds…haha i might be wrong though it could have been me.

    Yes they earn 25 percent more…but are they happy in their work? Was the 3-4 years at Uni worth it to them. Where are they working? These are things statistics can’t really tell you. You also fail to include niche markets which is what most of the article is based on… such as film.

    You are very right to pull me up on the 15 percent thing- I obvoiusly need to check what sources I use.

  9. Stuart Dent says:

    wait i just got out my notes. Pat Walsh told me about that performace based thing. So take it up with him haha.

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