World insight: a mixed bag from new New Zealand government

Stuart McCutcheon, vice-chancellor of the University of Auckland, on the consequences of New Zealand’s recent election

October 29, 2017
New Zealand, parliament, government
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New Zealand parliament buildings

After nine years of centre-right governments led by the National Party, New Zealand has a new centre-left government. This is a coalition between the centre-left Labour Party and the centrist, nationalist New Zealand First Party – with confidence and supply from the Greens.

The coalition’s commitment to “work to increase spending on research and development to 2 per cent of GDP over 10 years” can be expected to have a positive impact for New Zealand’s eight universities, which carry out about a third of the country’s research.

So too the new government’s commitment to ensure that immigration and international education appropriately support national aspirations. Finding the right balance for immigration was an area of focus for all parties in the election cycle, but this did not manifest in the ideological divide seen in recent elections elsewhere.

Questions of immigration policy are about not so much the value of immigration or international education as they are about the balance between business and industry need for labour and the infrastructure investment required to keep pace with and support a growing population. The place of international education in the immigration debate is born of past examples of immigration policy driving enrolments in low-level, low-quality courses in parts of the tertiary sector other than the universities.

This is a situation that has largely been resolved through effective implementation of government regulation, but one that the new government will also want to keep a close eye on.

Auckland is one of the most multicultural cities in the world, where nearly half the workforce was born elsewhere. Consequently, we see broad support across government and community for the role of immigration to support the country’s future, including the essential role of international education for talent acquisition for an innovative economy.

We know that currently one in three international students remains in New Zealand five years after graduation, contributing to our society and economy. We have long-standing bipartisan policies to fund international doctoral candidates at resident rates with generous work and study rights for spouses and children, a policy explicitly established to support universities in attracting and retaining talented future Kiwis.

International students make an important contribution to the life of our universities, and we do not want them discouraged from coming to New Zealand because of perceptions that our government no longer welcomes them – this is far from the case. The doors to our universities remain open to international students as they enrich our learning environment and help us to realise the investments that we need to make to achieve our mission.

One policy of particular concern, however, will see domestic tertiary students provided with their first year of study free (ie, no tuition fees) and a NZ$50 (£26) per week increase in the student allowance from 2018. The policy comes at an estimated cost of NZ$610 million (£320 million) a year and will further shift the balance of public funding in favour of students, at the expense of investment in the institutions. This despite the fact that we already have a very high level of investment in student support (mainly because of the policy of interest-free loans introduced by the last Labour government) but one of the lowest levels of institutional income per student in the Western world.

And, of course, it is income per student that is correlated with international rankings.

It has been claimed that this policy will significantly increase the number of students from deprived backgrounds (including indigenous students) who are able to gain a tertiary qualification. That seems highly unlikely, at least with respect to university study. In our experience, these students are precluded from entering university primarily because of their lack of achievement in the compulsory school sector, particularly in the sciences and mathematics.

Reducing the cost of study for the large numbers of middle-class students who already attend university will do nothing to address that problem.

The new government’s stated intention is to provide a second free year of study from 2021 and the third year free from 2024 (ie, a student entering the system in 2024 would get three years of a tertiary qualification without paying any fees). It is no coincidence that with a three-year electoral term, New Zealand can anticipate further general elections in 2020 and 2023.

As former National prime minister John Key said of interest-free loans, which his government objected to but did nothing about: “It may be bad policy, but it’s good politics.”

Stuart McCutcheon is vice-chancellor of the University of Auckland.

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