Millennium Graduates' Orientations to Higher Education

Article excerpt

This research examines graduates' orientations to higher education at the turn of the millennium. The focus is on 'millennium graduates' since this cohort have experienced a time of radical reform in higher education. Twenty-four graduates were interviewed and four orientations to higher education were found: (A) gaining a qualification for a specific job; (B) preparation for a job; (C) developing life skills and learning how to think; and (D) education for its own sake: growing as an individual. Differences in graduates' notions of a degree, and of knowledge and skills are evident across the orientations. In particular, orientations A and B have limitations inherent in the skill profile. A link is suggested between orientations A and B and previous familial experience of university and graduation, since first generation students are more likely to hold orientation A or B.

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The purpose of a contemporary university education has been much debated (e.g., Scott, 1997). Barnett (2003) argued that a higher education system educating upwards of 40% of a population cannot resemble that which educated less than 15%. The advent of mass higher education has had a number of important consequences, not least, a shift from the 1950s when higher education was governed mainly from within (Wright, 1988) to a system which is more controlled by the state. Changes also include: the erosion of the idea of academic community; increasing market orientation and subsequent competition; and, a new but associated emphasis on accountability and improved performance (Scott 1997).

So just what are modern universities for? In 1910, Newman thought that higher education should involve breadth of subject matter, active learning, and intellectual self-empowerment. Rhetorically, modern universities claim that these attributes continue to apply. Universities are said to be places of debate, openness and inclusiveness in which ideas can ferment and persons can flourish. Yet, according to Barnett (2003), such features are not pursued as institutional strategies. Moreover, Rylance and Simons (2001) suggest that in recent years the emphasis of a university education is weighted more heavily on vocational relevance, perhaps to the detriment of the intrinsic value of disciplines such as humanities and arts. They lament the lack of justification for free speech and enquiry.

Graduates and the university context

Like many other countries, the purposes of higher education in New Zealand are often linked to terms like the 'knowledge society' and 'learning society' and most university charters aim to produce graduates capable of making a contribution to such a society. For many young people the dominant discourse is characterised as a linear model of high school, then higher education, then job (Higgins & Nairn, 2006). The number of students entering (and graduating from) formal tertiary education increased dramatically during the 1990s (Ministry of Education, 2001); yet it was largely by chance that graduates could secure a job upon graduation. However, by 2004, due to an economic upturn New Zealand was being described as a 'worker's world' with the unemployment rate at an eighteen year low of 3.61%.

The 1990s were a time of significant political, economic and social reform in higher education. Mainly due to the New Right ideology, the New Zealand government placed an emphasis on giving students 'choice' (Gordon & Whitty, 1997). Thus, graduates at the millennium were one of the first cohorts to experience rapidly increasing fees; the abolishment of a universal student living allowance; and the introduction of a student loan system (Ministry of Education, 2001). They also had to contend with increased modularisation, semesterisation, and the introduction of summer schools. Similar trends are evident overseas (see Schwartz, 1994). These fundamental changes in the nature of higher education mean that the graduates of today's universities experience "a new kind of higher education and come from and go into a new kind of society" (Scott, 1997, p. …