When people are asked that age-old question “What are you going to do when you grow up?” I always like to hear them reply, “I’ll do what I love, and take it from there.” Unfortunately, replies like this seem to be becoming scarcer as the cost of tertiary education skyrockets, carrying student loans with it.

Fair enough. $15 000 of extra debt per year isn’t something to be taken lightly. When you’re staring down the barrel of a $45,000 student loan for a three-year degree, it’s not unreasonable to focus on how you’ll pay off that debt, rather than on how to fulfil your childhood passion for medieval history.

However, having just finished my first year at university, I think that there’s a lot more to studying than graduating and heading wherever the nearest dollar sign is.

Often when I say this to people, they point out that being able to study something you’re passionate about is a luxury only available to a few successful people who will excel no matter what they do. It is true, of course, that there are students who choose a variety of different interest papers and come out the other end to find a job in some completely unrelated area.

On the other hand, there are also plenty of students who head into an area because of the job at the other end, only to realise that they can’t stand the subject. The problem is the assumption that good pay in a few years time is enough to compensate a person for doing something which simply isn’t what they’re passionate about.

Unfortunately, we spend most of our time in secondary and tertiary education being told to focus on the job at the end of it. Even subjects like history, which used to be pursued for their own sake, now seek to justify their value with posters dotted around the walls of attractive young people chatting about the high-profile jobs their history degree has gained them.

In fact, most of the students I know who are really excelling in tertiary education are those who have decided to do something their passionate about, with far less consideration to the job at the other end. After secondary school, with no parents looking over your shoulders, no teachers to chase up late work, and competition with your peers far less direct, the only motivating factor left is your own desire to do well. This desire, I’ve found, comes not from the promise of an extra few thousand dollars in five years’ time, but from the excitement of studying in an area which fascinates you.

A classic case of the lack of the problem with people’s current mindset is in the Sciences. At Otago, the year starts with nearly 2000 people doing Health Sciences. At the end of the year, 200 of these will be accepted into Medicine, and a few more make it through by doing Postgraduate. Once Dentistry and Physiotherapy have taken more of the top students, whoever’s left usually pursues a Bachelor of Science (BSc).

In doing so, the BSc option becomes the default option for quite a few students. Rather than being something celebrated, many see it as where students go when they didn’t make the “prestigious” courses. That this is occurring at a time when so many students take science subjects throughout high school is puzzling.

What seems to be happening is that many students take what they love at school, but then worry about their future job once they reach university. This is probably wise for some people, but the sad thing is that it doesn’t leave much room for them to be inspired by their favourite areas of study.

Without people pursuing areas for their own sake, society as a whole suffers. We lose that creative, innovative spirit which comes from people who are fascinated by an area and continually seek to further their understanding of it. Look back across history to many seemingly great accomplishments, and it’s amazing how often they were simply somebody who loved to do something, and played around with a few things until somehow, somewhere, they achieved something new.

One issue with highlighting this approach to study is that the benefits are far more difficult to measure. Unlike direct economic benefit, which can be easily quantified, it’s a lot more difficult to explain to someone, in absolute terms, the value of the enjoyment that comes from working in your chosen field.

I think there is an economic justification for simply doing what you want to do. However, I also think there’s more to tertiary education than churning out jobs. We need to realise that a tertiary education has far-reaching benefits to people well beyond that individual.

As always, there are exceptions to what I’m saying. I’ve had the experience of jumping into a taxi on the way home from town, only to discover that the man driving me, who was about 50 years old, had a double major in Geography and Anthropology. I’d hazard a guess that his double major wasn’t doing a lot for his pay.

However, I’d also bet that that taxi driver would tell you that it was worth it. The life experience he gained, the times he had, the friends he made – all of them are irreplaceable. For most people who do what they love, you can also add to this list the success they’ve had, the pleasure they’ve found, and the good they’ve done by doing whatever inspires them.

As student debt grows and the recession hits, making certain money and landing a secure job look a bit more seductive; the only difficulty will be persuading students of this.

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