Narrowing the focus of tertiary education
Last time I wrote, New Zealand was about to elect a new government. As you probably know, the election came and went, but the government remained pretty much as it was. For those of us working in tertiary education this meant the continuing reign of our previous minister, Steven Joyce. However, his title changed from Minister of Tertiary Education to Minister of Tertiary Education Skills and Employment. He also collected the portfolios of Economic Development, and Science and Innovation.
At the time, we noted that while tertiary education was integral to the economy, it was important that this did not become the dominant or sole focus of our tertiary education minister.
Here we are, four months later, and the recently released public sector briefings to the ‘incoming minister’ have been released. Sadly, our suspicions have been confirmed – the government and its officials increasingly view tertiary education primarily in terms of its contribution to private enterprise.
Treasury advised that we needed to shift funding toward younger students who study for degrees. Treasury’s focus on younger students and degrees, at the expense of older students and lower level qualifications, will take away opportunities from some New Zealand families who most need tertiary qualifications to lift themselves up and to contribute to the economy.
Treasury also advised shifting research funding to favour research that private firms ask for.
We should not research things only because a private firm thinks it can make a profit. We need to invest in basic research and often this is not what private companies are looking for.
The Ministry of Education began its briefing by noting that total expenditure on tertiary education as a percentage of gross domestic product (excluding student loans) fell significantly last year, and will fall by a further 4.8 per cent over the next five years.
Thus, it spent much of its briefing advising the minister to target increasingly limited funding on those areas and students it believes will best match the government’s economic growth goals. It advocated aggressively seeking external private funding in the tertiary education sector, both through export education, and by greater links between tertiary education, research, and private companies.
It is increasingly clear that funding cuts are leading the ministry to abandon a commitment to broad-based, equitable, and accessible education. The narrow focus on picking winners for the economy and on generating private income to cover its public funding shortfall undermines New Zealand’s historical commitment to open accessible public tertiary education.
Furthermore, the ministry’s intention to interfere with the autonomy of tertiary institutions to ensure they are not teaching or researching in ‘lower priority’ areas, as defined by government, is a fundamental threat to academic freedom, which is protected in New Zealand’s Education Act.
Finally our funding agency, the Tertiary Education Commission, proposed the minister create ‘compacts’ with individual tertiary education institutions in conjunction with performance-linked funding to drive the government’s economic growth strategy.
It noted that overseas jurisdictions such as Australia and some US states have used compacts – long-term strategic agreements between large education providers and central government – to tie an institution’s strategy and activity with national objectives by defining in advance reward payments for specified achievements. The commission favours using these compacts in tandem with more mechanistic funding of “throughput” at an individual student level.
The direction set out in this trio of briefings to the Minister of Tertiary Education Skills and Employment, Economic Development, and Science and Innovation (and Associate Minister of Finance) is far narrower than the vision of those working in the sector. Tertiary education does have economic benefits for individuals and the nation. But the minister needs to make sure that his focus on economic development does not crowd out space for all the other important social, human, and community benefits that high quality public tertiary education provides.