University graduation rates in New Zealand are at an all-time low, a statistic that hints at widespread disillusionment among Kiwi students with higher education. Out of all the tertiary students starting their first year in 2016, only 66 percent are expected to graduate. This puts New Zealand as one of the lowest ranked university completion countries in the OECD.
VICE spoke to four 21-year-old dropouts to find out why they ditched uni, and whether they'd do things differently if they were bright-eyed 18-year-olds once again.
Josh, Fine Arts
VICE: Hey Josh, can you tell me why you dropped out?
Josh: Well, I actually went travelling for a year out of high school. When I came back I was at this point of being like "What's next?" I decided to drop out after my first year.
I guess what didn't sit right with me was knowing that coming out of fine arts I had two options: teaching or becoming an artist. I knew I didn't want to teach, and thought if I was going to be self-made anyway I really didn't need a degree to make art.
Do you think people study just to seem like they are doing something?
Absolutely. I know so many people, guys at like Vic [Victoria University] doing commerce or something because they don't really want to face real life. They can live off government money, scrape by with a B average, and party on weekends.
So, the low graduation rate doesn't surprise you?
No, I think a lot of kids go to uni with no real passion for what they want to do. They want to embrace a uni lifestyle, where they can get drunk and go out three times a week. It's more like a break from the real world than actually learning something.
Coming out of secondary school what were your options: just like go to uni or become a tradie?
Yeah, totally. No one wanted to be the person that never left their hometown after high school. A lot of people want to get out, and uni was a way to do that.
You're living in London now. What's the plan?
I've actually realised that I really love graphic design, but it's really hard to get work in graphic design without that degree on your CV. So I plan to go back to Wellington and start studying again next year, now that I know what I want.
Sophie, Biomed & Psychology
Hey Sophie, why did you drop out?
I did six months, I really enjoyed what I was studying but social pressures meant I dropped out. I was living in a flat I didn't like, which made me feel like I hated the city and needed to get out.
How long did you take off uni? At the time did you know you'd go back?
I took a year. And no, definitely not.
Was there a sense of failure when you left?
Oh my god yeah, I felt so guilty. I really struggled being behind my peers as well. I'd already taken one gap year, which I found hard because everyone straight out of school went to uni. So I thought if I ever went back I'd be so far behind. I realise now that's not a big deal.
Did you feel like you didn't have many options after secondary school?
Yeah totally, the way they push it is like you have to go to university. It was also like you go to uni to go to halls of residence.
But you didn't live in halls, right?
No, I didn't. I actually I think that's a massive reason for dropouts as well. Everyone goes to uni because they want that social halls thing for first year. Then they rack up all these debts and party hard. Only in second year do they realise they don't actually like their degree.
Why did you end up coming back to study?
I basically moved to Auckland and started nannying, but I realised pretty fast I wouldn't be satisfied working in childcare. I'd always been interested in environmental science so decided to start again. It was the best decision—I needed to be learning.
Talk to me about why you dropped out of uni.
I did a year of architecture and realised I wasn't into study. I didn't care about it, it was more about drinking and stuff. After high school I didn't know what to do and everyone was heading to study, so I jumped on board.
What was the main problem you had with the university system, what didn't sit right for you?
I mean, I was doing really well at uni. I just realised it wasn't the right time, it didn't feel right. I thought I would take a break so I went to the Gold Coast. When I came back, I realised I still wasn't ready to study—it wasn't my first priority.
Do you think the high number of dropouts might be because a lack of direction after high school?
Yeah, I think maybe people feel that they should go into uni straight out of high school, even if they're not necessarily ready for it. Our drinking culture would also play a big part. Some people put studying aside to have a good night out with friends.
So a lot of kids are just chasing a certain lifestyle?
Heaps of people are just about the party culture/student life/flatting. Doing what your friends are doing. I have a friend studying business and he said he was just doing it to get the degree. He didn't care. If I could do it again I would wait a year or two, work out what I really wanted, and then go into it with a clearer mind.
Tell me a little bit about what you were studying and why you dropped out.
I wanted to radio journalism but I found my communications course so broad. It was a whole lot of stuff that I felt didn't apply, just no relevance to what I wanted to do. I got over it really quick. I was living at home too, so it felt like an extension of high school.
So you found the course wasn't stimulating enough?
I just found that the thing I struggled with during high school was coming up again. It felt like everything was very fake, you weren't learning for education's sake or the real world. You were learning to pass exams. You were going to lectures to have the material to write essays. It felt very niche.
Was uni the default option for you after high school?
Oh, for sure. It was "What uni are you going to and what are you going to study?" The pressure was definitely there. I would've loved to have gone overseas straight away but I hadn't saved so it wasn't a viable option.
What would you attribute the dropout rate to?
Well, your whole life you're in the education system and it's not your choice—it's compulsory. So I think there's a kind of external or internal pressure to continue in that kind of formalised learning.
For me, I felt heaps of pressure from my high school to pick a course that "best suited my career choice." I didn't even have a career in mind. I realised that pretty early and chose to leave. I think a lot more people would leave uni if they felt like they had the choice.
Do you have any regrets?
Not at all. That being said, even now I would still love to work in radio. But I love what I do now, I love my life.
*some of the names in this article have been changed to suit the person's low key lifestyle.