When Roger Douglas set about unshackling the New Zealand economy in the 1980s, it seems he also helped unshackle young people's expectations.

A Marsden Fund-supported study led by Dr Karen Nairn, from Otago's College of Education, suggests university has almost taken on a compulsory status amongst the children of Rogernomics.

"Before the education reforms of the 1990s it was mainly children from elite or middleclass backgrounds who went to university," she says.

But while there was a time when completing five years at secondary school was considered an achievement, Nairn says going on to tertiary studies is now expected. "Not everyone in our study was planning to go to university, but they more or less always considered it when weighing up their options."

The study involved in-depth interviews with more than 90 participants from different parts of the country, including Pākehā, Māori and young people from the Pacific Islands.

The aim was to investigate how interactions between participants' life experiences, their social relations, place, as well as social and economic change contribute to the formation of identity.

The research also found, however, that while many participants had a clear understanding of what was expected of them as they made the transition from high school, some challenged the emphasis on university and others found the expectations placed on them difficult.

The study examined the way some Auckland schools mentor high-achieving Māori and Pacific Islands girls to go on to university. "This mentoring is a sign of the times in terms of fostering abilities, but it also intensifies the pressures experienced by these groups of young people," says Nairn.

She says the tertiary reforms of the 1990s revolved around encouraging people to get a loan, go to university, get a job and pay it back. "It was designed to encourage greater participation in the knowledge economy - and it's worked for many, but not all."

To date, the study has generated six papers on a variety of areas dealing with how economic reforms have shaped young people's thinking. A book is also on the way.


Marsden Fund