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Narrowing the focus of tertiary education L

ast 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. fall undermines New Zealand’s historical commitment to open, At the time, we noted that while tertiary education was integral to the accessible public tertiary education. economy, it was important that this did not become the dominant or Furthermore, the Ministry’s intention to interfere with the autonsole focus of our tertiary education Minister. omy of tertiary institutions to ensure they are not teaching or Here we are, four months later, and the recently released public researching in ‘lower priority’ areas, as defined by government, is sector briefings to the ‘incoming Minister’ have been released. a fundamental threat to academic freedom, which is protected in Sadly, our suspicions have been confirmed - the Government and New Zealand’s Education Act. its officials increasingly view tertiary education primarily in terms of Finally our funding agency, the Tertiary Education Commission, its contribution to private enterprise. proposed the Minister create ‘compacts’ with individual tertiary Treasury advised that we needed to shift funding toward younger education institutions in conjunction with performance-linked students who study for degrees. Treasury’s focus on younger stufunding to drive the Government’s economic growth strategy. dents and degrees, at the expense of older students and lower It noted that overseas jurisdiclevel qualifications, will take away tions such as Australia and some opportunities from some New It is increasingly clear that funding cuts US states have used compacts – Zealand families who most need long-term strategic agreements tertiary qualifications to lift themare leading the ministry to abandon a between large education providselves up and to contribute to the commitment to broad-based, equitable, ers and central government - to economy. and accessible education. The narrow tie an institution’s strategy and Treasury also advised shiftfocus on picking winners for the economy activity with national objectives ing research funding to favour by defining in advance reward research that are asked for by priand on generating private income payments for specified achievevate firms. to cover its public funding shortfall ments. The Commission favours We should not research things undermines New Zealand’s historical using these compacts in tandem only because a private firm thinks commitment to open accessible public with more mechanistic funding of it can make a profit. We need to ‘throughput’ at an individual stuinvest in basic research and often tertiary education. dent level. this is not what private companies The direction set out in this trio are looking for. of briefings to the Minister of Tertiary Education Skills and EmployThe Ministry of Education began its briefing by noting that total ment, Economic Development, and Science and Innovation (and expenditure on tertiary education as a percentage of Gross DomesAssociate Minister of Finance) is far narrower than the vision of tic Product (excluding student loans) fell significantly last year, and those working in the sector. Tertiary education does have economic will fall by a further 4.8 per cent over the next five years. benefits for individuals and the nation. But the Minister needs to Thus, it spent much of its briefing advising the Minister to make sure that his focus on economic development does not crowd target increasingly limited funding on those areas and students out space for all the other important social, human, and community it believes will best match the Government’s economic growth benefits that high quality public tertiary education provides. A goals. It advocated aggressively seeking external private funding Sandra Grey is National President/Te Tumu Whakarae, in the tertiary education sector, both through export education, New Zealand Tertiary Education Union/Te Hautū Kahurangi o Aotearoa and by greater links between tertiary education, research, and priTEU vate 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 TERTIARY EDUCATION UNION Te Hautū Kahurangi o Aotearoa and on generating private income to cover its public funding shortMARCH 2012