By: Simon Collins
Video: Sam Menezes talks to the Herald about why she chose to study nursing at the University of Auckland. Video/Greg Bowker
New Zealand is training a lot more doctors and nurses, but fewer accountants and teachers, as students seek out courses that will get them good jobs.
New figures show declining proportions are studying the once-dominant degrees of bachelor of arts (BA) and bachelor of commerce (BCom), which provide less certain career pathways.
Instead, student numbers are soaring in health, engineering and information technology (IT), and to a slightly lesser extent in primary industries and environmental studies.
The figures, disclosed in a set of new reports by the Ministry of Education, reflect a tertiary education strategy set by the former National Government with a top priority of “delivering skills for industry”.
Through investment plans negotiated with each tertiary institute, the Tertiary Education Commission has gradually steered more funding into “STEM” subjects – science, engineering, technology and maths.
The former Government also specifically funded 200 extra medical school places since 2010, ran a campaign to recruit more engineering students, and opened three graduate schools in information and communications technology.
The result has been dramatic increases of 43 to 44 per cent in the numbers of equivalent-fulltime students at bachelor or higher levels in health, engineering and IT from 2008 to 2016.
In contrast, the numbers studying accounting dropped by 12 per cent and teacher trainees fell by 10 per cent.
There were still increases in the broad fields of management and commerce (up 2 per cent) and the old BA subjects now called “society and culture” (up 3 per cent), but both declined as proportions of total student numbers.
There were more respectable increases in creative arts (6 per cent), sciences (7.5 per cent) and a broad field which includes agriculture, horticulture, forestry, fisheries and environmental studies (up 29 per cent).
Building trades trainees increased, but the numbers studying architecture or building at degree level or above declined by 3.5 per cent, despite the current building boom.
Health Workforce NZ head Professor Des Gorman said the country was now training enough doctors, but he was worried about the ageing workforce in nursing, with 45 per cent of nurses aged over 50 in 2015.
“As economic conditions improve, nurses move out of the workforce, so with the average age of 50 we have a perfect storm coming up,” he said.
“Nursing went through a long period of under-recruitment and under-training. We didn’t recruit well for 10 or 20 years.
“Right now we at the very least need to maintain the current nursing intakes, and maybe increase them.”
Engineering NZ chief executive Susan Freeman-Greene said the recruitment campaign for engineering boosted numbers in degree courses, but there was still a big shortage of technicians and technologists training in institutes of technology and polytechnics.
“There is a massive ongoing need for more engineers in some of the engineering disciplines,” she said.
She pointed to the Canterbury University-educated head of propulsion for Rocket Lab, Lachlan Matchett, as an example of what engineers could now do in New Zealand. Matchett, then 26, was named last year’s Young Engineer of the Year.
Technology Investment Network managing director Greg Shanahan said there was also still a shortage of IT graduates for New Zealand’s growing high-tech sector.
“If you look at companies like Xero, Gentrack or Vista, the bulk of their staff are in software development and coding,” he said. “So if young students are studying science and software and computer science ahead of more commercial subjects, that’s a good thing.”
Nursing student knows where she’s heading
Nursing student Samantha Menezes says the big difference between nursing and more general degrees such as a bachelor of arts is that nurses know where they’re heading.
“My friends who come out with a bachelor of commerce or arts get to a point where it’s, ‘I’ve done that, what now?'” she said.
“In that regard I’m really lucky to do a degree like nursing because you are quite sure of where you want to go, as opposed to still trying to figure that out. Definitely there’s a lot more security in it.”
Menezes, 22, will finish a conjoint degree in nursing and health sciences at Auckland University in mid-year. She has had placements in about six different areas of nursing, and hopes to get a job initially in acute care.
“I’m quite interested in emergency care, that would be like my top choice,” she said.
“Then I think I’m planning to see where that leads. I will most likely go into postgraduate study either within health or to work towards being a nurse practitioner or nurse educator.”
She took a first year in health sciences, a broad field that allowed her to learn about many areas of health.
“From there, I could choose nursing, and I was really sure about my choice,” she said.
“The thing I love about nursing is that you have the health side, learning about your anatomy and physiology and how that works, and in nursing you also have the opportunity to get to know your patients quite personally and support their lives.
“So to me it seemed like a no-brainer – I’d get that academic challenge in terms of health and the body, and you also get to sit with the patient and hold their hand, and to them it means so much.”
Source: NZ Herald