This article was first published on June 13, 2023. It was republished on January 7, 2024.

This story is part of Re: News' Off The Grid Week, where we look at what it's like to go off the beaten path. Check out the rest of the stories here.

65% of New Zealand adults have a tertiary qualification, and the average person still owes $20,000 on their student loan. International studies have shown more and more jobs are demanding a degree - but is it all really necessary? 

When Sonny Ngatai dropped out of university, it was the lowest moment of his life.

Very much an overachiever at high school, he had gotten a prestigious full scholarship to do pre-med. 

But six months in, he was failing. The first semester results had come in, and his marks were bad - so bad, in fact, he was going to lose his scholarship.

“I was just so, so, ashamed from that. I really felt like I failed my parents.”

The thing is, he didn’t really want to be a doctor. 

But as head boy and a top student, going to uni was just what was expected of him.

“Because I wasn't bold enough to make the decision to not go to uni, I put myself through torture. And, yeah, I had to pay for that.”

Now Sonny is 26 and one of New Zealand’s most-recognised young faces of te reo Māori promotion 

He’s presented and created shows for Nickelodeon, TVNZ, Discovery and Whakaata Māori.

He’s done a show from Antarctica (which he says is his “greatest moment”) and was part of the team that created the Māori Language Moment, which won one of the world’s biggest international public relations awards.

He became a senior analyst at international professional services company PricewaterhouseCoopers, and has recently founded his own Māori language promotion and production agency, ATA, with his partner.

And he doesn’t have a degree.

Is a degree really necessary?

New Zealanders are getting increasingly educated. 

Twenty years ago in 2001, 54% of adults had a tertiary qualification. By 2021, that number had jumped to 65%.

But is it all really necessary? And is our job market expecting degrees when they’re not needed for the job?

A 2017 Harvard Business School study found 75% of new jobs in the US required a Bachelor’s degree.

Only one in 100 jobs accepted a high school diploma or less, and millions of job ads required applicants to have a degree - even when the current person in the role didn’t have one.

The report authors called this “degree inflation”, where jobs that previously didn’t need a degree now required one.

It’s not clear whether this is the case in New Zealand too, and both Seek and Trade Me say they don’t collect data on the number of job postings requiring degrees on their sites.

Going to university isn’t cheap, and doesn’t necessarily pay off

Since student loans were introduced in 1992, New Zealanders have taken out $31.5 billion.

As of December last year, students in New Zealand needed to borrow on average $10,000 a year and the average unpaid loan balance was over $24,000.

An Australian report from this year said 20% of today’s university students would have been financially better off by skipping university and going straight from school to work. 

“As the number of graduates increased, the economic value of their degrees withered,” the report said.

Getting rid of degree requirements for government jobs 

Over the last year, governors in at least five US states including Pennsylvania, Utah, and Georgia have gotten rid of the requirement for a four-year uni degree for most jobs in their state government.

Could we do the same here? Our government is structured differently to US state governments, so there’s not one person that can make a broad change like this. 

In New Zealand decisions about recruitment for government jobs sit with the chief executives of individual government agencies, Alex Chadwick, the Public Service Commission’s deputy commissioner for workforce, employment and equity, says.

So basically each government department, like the Ministry of Education or the Department of Conservation makes its own decisions.

Chadwick says some government roles do require a specific level of qualification, but that is not the case for all of them.

“For example, frontline roles at the Department of Corrections, Department of Conservation or New Zealand Customs will be quite different to policy or advisory roles at the Treasury or Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, which require different combinations of skills and experience.”

A solution to New Zealand’s mental health workforce crisis? Hiring people without degrees

Our mental health workforce is “on the brink of collapse”, says associate professor James Foulds of the Department of Psychological Medicine at the University of Otago, Christchurch.

Along with two of his colleagues, he published an editorial in the New Zealand Medical Journal in May calling for people without degrees to be hired as mental health workers.

He says there’s an “increasing need to recruit people without a tertiary degree-level health qualification but with other desirable attributes, including lived experiences of mental illness and a deep understanding of tikanga Māori and Pasifika culture”.

One in every 10 positions are currently vacant in the mental health workforce, he says, which means the current staff are having to do 10% more work than they should.

And some services, he says, “are just not happening at the level they should be”.

Some jobs still absolutely need a degree, he says, like doctors and nurses who need to prescribe medication. 

But “there are a lot of people out in the workforce with the necessary skills and attributes that could work in the mental health sector and be brought into roles with paid on-the-job training”, Foulds says.

Some of New Zealand’s biggest companies said they were going to start hiring without degrees - have they lived up to their word?

In 2017 over 100 companies including Xero, ASB, Fonterra and Microsoft signed an open letter saying you don’t need tertiary qualifications for a number of skilled jobs with them.

Trade Me created a new category of skilled job listings that require no qualifications. 

Six years later, that category is no longer visible on the Trade Me website. 

Trade Me didn’t reply to Re: News’s specific question about whether that category still exists.

But Trade Me head of talent Carrie O’Meara-Malcolm says the company was started in a Wellington bedroom by Sam Morgan, who did not have a degree, and that when the company is hiring they continue his legacy and look for diversity of thought.

ASB, who along with KPMG were the main business behind the open letter initiative, says the initiative started the conversation that study was not for everyone and businesses need to be open to attracting the right talent. 

ASB spokesperson Hannah Searle says the company doesn’t require a degree for the majority of their jobs. 

“Technology is one area where many roles don’t need a degree, with ASB funding the necessary job specific certifications to support new starters to this team.”

KPMG didn’t respond by the deadline of this story. 

‘I always did feel like I had to prove myself to people’


Sonny Ngatai says he has felt stigma about not having a degree. Photo: Anna Harcourt

Overseas the tides may be turning, with a Harvard Business School report from last year finding evidence of change, with 37% of “high-skill” jobs no longer requiring a bachelor’s degree.

But Sonny says despite his achievements, he has felt a stigma about not having a degree.

He says one time he saw a teacher from his days of health science study. 

“They looked at me and said, ‘Are you going to stick with TV or are you going to come back to uni and get a real job?’”

In later years, Sonny says whenever he did a panel talk or a conference, everyone else would be introduced with their degrees: this person has a Master’s, this person has a PhD, “and then ‘Sonny Ngatai: blank”.

And once, he says, a manager told him he wouldn’t get the promotion he wanted without studying. 

At times he felt like he would never get there because he didn’t have that piece of paper - regardless of what he had achieved without it.

But now, he doesn’t feel like he’s missing anything in his life by not having a degree.

His advice to young people is to be bold enough to follow your dream.

And he says we need a better word than dropout to describe the decision to leave uni. 

“Or we can just start saying the word dropout with a mana-enhancing tone.”

Correction: This article was updated on June 19 2023 to clarify which award the Māori Language Moment won. 

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