University education: the elephant in the room

We demand a lot from our universities.

The government has demanded that the University of Auckland prioritise engineering and the sciences. Firms and industries look to the tertiary sector to solve the skills shortage in New Zealand’s workforce.

On the other side of the coin, students see university as the place to get an education and degree that will lead to well paying jobs (which, according to a recent article, seems to be a wrongly held assumption) and society has its fingers crossed that our universities will breed the next generation of leaders and thinkers to steer the ship forward.

For the vast majority of people, university has always been (and should continue to be) a pathway into a fulfilling career. Some people turn up to university knowing where they want to go and how to get there: you can’t be a doctor without first having put five years into medical school. Others, myself included, turned to university as the place where we had hoped to come out the other side having it all figured out.

Although tertiary education is often a means to an end – a stepping-stone into ‘the better stuff’ or the ‘stuff we actually want to do’ that comes later down the path – university is nonetheless a very important end in itself.

Across all the different views that people may have about tertiary education, including those who think that it’s a waste of time (PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel offers students generous scholarships to drop out of tertiary education and put their entrepreneurial skills to work), everyone is ultimately all on the same side. We all want to see the fresh young generation develop into bright and thoughtful citizens, people who either with their individual expertise or through collective efforts will make positive contributions, whether financial or social, to the society that we live in and cherish.

Yet we disagree on what exactly the “value” of education is, and where it comes from. On the one hand, we can look to the numbers and examine the financial value of an education as if it were a private investment in each individual. On the other, universities generate a wealth of intangible, and often immeasurable value in the form of positive externalities and spin-off effects.

But there is an elephant in the room, and that is that we live in a world which faces enormous challenges moving ahead.

Some of these challenges are things that we are aware of – an exhausted planet, economic crises and military conflict, to name a few – but there are many more issues (some big, some bigger) which we will come across in this century that will be unprecedented and for which we will be completely and utterly unprepared for.

Even the problems we face today are issues that we are ill equipped to solve. With all due respect, it sometimes seems like modern governments really have no idea what they are doing when trying to solve the financial crises’ that have thrown what we know and understand about economics out the window.

We are treading into the unknown, and if there is one thing that has never been clearer to me as a student, it is that times are a-changing.

We are in uncharted territory.

So perhaps we should be asking ourselves: what do we demand from today’s students, the Generation Y “problem solvers”, and how can universities best support them?

In the short to medium term, we need to get graduates into jobs (‘the right bums onto the right seats’) that will keep the economic engine well oiled. But in the long term, what we need is an environment that nurtures thinkers and individuals who are aware of more than what is inside their own personal bubbles.

We need teachers that challenge students to think critically and beyond their Grade Point Average. We need opportunities and stories that inspire and motivate. We need experiences that build resilience and a culture of collaboration.

Some of these things come from being at a university. My learning curve over the past four years has been exponential. But a large part of this also comes from having the right attitude, a strong internal compass, and support from the wider community for this generation to not limit themselves to the well-worn track.

We may demand a lot from our universities, but we should also demand a lot from ourselves.

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