Vocational Education Needs Same Status as University

We need to make vocational education as attractive for young people as University is now.

The Government has announced a reform of the vocational education sector, merging all 16 polytechnics and parts of the Industry Training Organisations into one national institution. Whether this will work remains to be seen – the devil will be in the detail on these reforms. The Opportunities Party will be looking at these details closely as they emerge, and will form our own position on this vital issue.

What is clear is that more successful economies and fairer societies than ours make vocational education a real priority. Is that where our Government is ultimately headed, or is this simply a cost cutting measure? If it does want to make this a real priority that will be difficult to fund, given how much money is going into Universities via the fees free policy.

Finland and Germany

In 2018 I spent a few weeks looking at the Finnish and German education systems. One of the starkest lessons from this was that they give a far greater priority to vocational education than we do.

The most obvious example is money. Vocational education starts at school, even in primary school. Schools have the money to purchase kit for students to use to learn practical skills – including sewing, cooking, woodwork and IT.

After school, these countries invest just as much in vocational education as they do in University education. Some courses are even more expensive because of the machinery that they use.

The crucial thing about vocational education in these countries is that it is done in partnership with business. In other words the study is usually done alongside work experience. Not all of the money goes into training – some goes towards paying the student’s wages in the early years when they aren’t very useful in the workplace.

One of the Government’s arguments for Fair Pay Agreements is that it will give the incentive for businesses to invest in improving skills through vocational education. In other words they are hoping to shunt businesses towards the Finnish and German model. If this were the real focus of the Fair Pay Agreements, surely it would have been better to sit down with business and talk about vocational education alongside these reforms?

But it isn’t just about money, it is also about status. Both Finland and Germany worked hard for many years to remove the stigma around vocational education. In these countries the vocational pathway is not seen as a “less skilled” option for “dumb people”. The sort of stigma we see in New Zealand simply doesn’t makes sense, because many people with practical skills end up earning more than those with University degrees.

This status issue shows up in other ways. It is a lot simpler for a young person to navigate the vocational education system in Finland and Germany than it is here. In New Zealand successive Governments have focussed on funding Universities instead of polytechs, which is why so many polytechs scrambled to become Universities.

Making vocational education a priority may be a one reason why Finland and Germany’s economies are more productive than ours. Certainly there is nothing oustanding about their University education system compared with ours.

However these countries don’t just invest for economic reasons, but for social reasons as well. Students of vocational education are more likely to come from poorer backgrounds compared to University students. High quality vocational education is not only a way to lift our economy, but also a way to break the cycle of poverty by offering those students a hand up.


Putting vocational education on a level pegging with University would involve extra funding. Finding that money will be difficult when the Government has already promised to give everyone 3 years of fees free tertiary tuition. Vocational education benefits from fees free also, but to a much lesser degree than Universities because Universities already received a higher payment per course.

Fees-free University is poor quality spending that wouldn’t get through any “Wellbeing Budget”. Given that University is generally populated by the children of the middle and upper classes, it would have been much better for the economy and society to put that money in bringing vocational education up to scratch.

Sadly it seems more likely that the Government will do this vocational reform on a shoestring budget and the truly needy will once again miss out because they are less likely to vote.