What next for tertiary education?

Posted By TEU on Sep 21, 2017 |

David Cooke, national chair of the Quality Public Education Coalition, looks at some of the key issues facing the tertiary education sector after the election, before offering some thoughts on what we can do together to ensure a positive future for students and staff.

There is much that undermines tertiary education in New Zealand. Here are some key items, but in each case, there are valid responses.


A most pressing challenge right now is the tertiary education amendment bill. It proposes to entrench equal funding for comparable courses in public and private tertiary institutions. That could crudely privatise any number of tertiary courses. After fierce resistance, including 2,100 submissions to the Select Committee, the legislation is on hold until after the election. But if enacted, it would weaken the public institutions like universities and polytechnics and strengthen the private sector.

It would mean a whole lot more private institution courses that lack the solid academic base that sustains tertiary teaching. It would mean not just more business for existing private institutions, but likely many more private training establishments.

Meanwhile, there would be even less funding for public institutions and that’s the next point.

Under Funding

The second and ever-present danger in tertiary education is persistent under funding. In 2013, Treasury estimated a shortfall of $1 billion. As a result, staff workloads have increased sharply, programmes get harder to fund, and institutions are constantly under stress. The 2013 black hole has cumulative effect in each subsequent year, creating increasing pressures on staff. Meanwhile, a lack of funds affects students in a crucial way.

Student fees

Students face increasing fees and astronomical debts. The current overall total debt stands at $15 billion. Since 1992, students have borrowed $23,146 million. The average individual debt is $21,000, which hangs around for a decade: the median loan re-payment is 8 to 9 years. It’s no wonder many graduates go overseas to high-income employment to pay off their loans. But during their time in tertiary education, students are trying to balance finances, study and hand-to-mouth jobs to keep afloat.

The Tertiary Education Strategy

As National’s Tertiary Education Strategy makes clear, it sees education basically as a pragmatic pathway to employment. Not that the jobs are necessarily available, of course, but if you’re simply concerned with employability, you reconstruct tertiary education into vocational training.

Steven Joyce zeros in on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), while denigrating the Humanities and Social Sciences. He also crassly promotes “learning for earning” – urging students to take programmes that lead to high-paying jobs in medicine, engineering, finance and IT, supposedly to help students and families make “smart decisions” for the future.

It was therefore refreshing to hear Peter Crampton, University of Otago Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Health Sciences, in the first week of September. On 9 to Noon, in a discussion of a possible new school of rural medicine, he carefully promoted the Arts and straightforwardly defended the role of tertiary education to prepare people to be citizens of the country. Such an outlook ought to be front and centre in government planning.


The biggest single obstacle to enlightened tertiary education policy in New Zealand is the National Government. It is firmly in the ideological camp of utilitarian education – training for work and business.

There is a highly charged context here. The current decade is a critical watershed for the planet – global climate destruction, which our government has spent nine years ignoring; the rise of right-wing populism, propelling social bullying and coercion; a US election based on unreality; distortion and deception driving the Brexit vote.

Then of particular relevance to New Zealand, the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) negotiations, systematically misrepresented and hidden from the public. As part of the same package, entrenched neoliberalism throughout the country; relentless inequality; determined government retreat from responsibility through off-loading social programmes and state housing.

Here and abroad, we need a resolute drive to defend the liberal, humanist, progressive tertiary institution to reconstruct and protect democracy. We therefore need a concerted effort across the tertiary sector – not leaving it just to the TEU – to counter the above dangers.

Here’s a suggestion:

  • reject and resist the Education Amendment Bill, if it surfaces again after the election
  • argue for much enhanced tertiary funding
  • promote no-fees tertiary study
  • demand that the incoming government construct a socially enlightened, progressive tertiary education strategy
Print Friendly