Shady side of bright ideas

November 12, 1999

New Zealand is gearing up for elections. Bryan Gould looks at the sense behind ruling party slogans.

It is all change in New Zealand. The white paper on tertiary education, which preoccupied the education world for more than a year, has been withdrawn - a casualty of this month's general election and apprehension about battles that could not be won.

It has been replaced by a document outlining the "bright future" that awaits New Zealand if we become a "knowledge society".

There is something about a document titled Bright Future - Five Steps Forward that reminds me of a visit to communist China in 1978. The only splashes of colour were huge billboards bearing red Chinese characters proclaiming the great virtues of the "Four Modernisations".

Like the Chinese, the New Zealand government seems to have an almost superstitious faith in the power of slogans - particularly if they contain numbers. Unfortunately, as the Chinese communists discovered, slogans are not enough.

Bright Future is, however, a significant step forward. Not so long ago we were assured that government had no role to play and that market forces would produce the right answers. Now - perhaps a visit or two to Ireland or Finland later and after a look at New Zealand's economic performance - we are told that government does have a responsibility.

This is a welcome change of heart. Welcome, too, is the channelling of more resources into higher education, particularly scholarships to encourage research, though the sums are small. Who could quarrel with Bright Future's insistence that our future depends on how well we educate ourselves at the highest level?

There is scarcely a government anywhere that would not subscribe to the same sentiments. What matters is not what governments say but what they do.

What government has done in New Zealand is at variance with the language of Bright Future. Funding per student has fallen so sharply and fees have risen so steeply that the deterrent effect on the numbers going on to university is unmistakable.

Quality, too, has been affected. An Australian graduate will have had 50 per cent more spent on his or her university education than a New Zealand graduate. New Zealand universities might use their resources more efficiently, but a disparity of this size must affect quality.

The brave words of Bright Future must be set alongside this reality. The education minister, in a radio interview, envisaged that just two or three elite research universities would conduct the nation's research effort.

The education minister does not seem to grasp that a university that is not funded to carry out research, and which therefore does not do so, cannot claim the status of a university in the international academic community.

This further narrowing of an already dangerously narrow research base would be the wrong move. The government has recognised the limitations of washing its hands of any responsibility, but it has jumped straight to the opposite extreme of adopting an overly prescriptive approach.

Government's responsibility is surely to ensure that our community invests a proper share of our resources in higher education. It should seek the development of a deep, rich and fertile seedbed of highly educated people whose scholarship and creativity will then generate the research outcomes we need. Instead of a rich and diverse forest, the minister seems ready to settle for a couple of potted palms.

Bright Future is full of praise for innovation, but the strategy is risk-averse, suggesting that research will be funded only for known and prescribed outcomes. This flies in the face of all we know about the essence of scholarship and research - that it is a voyage of discovery whose most valuable outcomes are often the least expected.

This ministerial blind spot might suggest that the debate

is heading in the wrong direction. In fact, there is a lively and positive debate, whose most encouraging aspect is that tertiary education is emerging as one of the

central issues of the election

campaign.

The debate is concerned not so much with the universities as with students, who have votes. Most voters are less concerned with philosophical questions about the role of universities, or even with more practical issues concerning the funding of universities. They are worried about the cost to individual students of

getting to university - a cost that is growing sharply as public

funding per student falls, fees rise and the scale of student debt

created by the student loan scheme becomes ever more apparent.

But these immediate pocket-book (and totally justified) concerns are evidence that the value of tertiary education is widely accepted and that people understand the importance of what the universities do and the quality of what is done. It is perhaps only a small step to move from that understanding to an insistence that the resources needed to achieve the desired outcomes are made available.

New Zealand does indeed have a bright future, provided we avoid silly mistakes. We have valuable natural advantages, unrivalled expertise in the production of premium primary products, the largest and fastest growing market in our region, an educated population, and political and economic stability.

We need to turn these

factors to our advantage by ensuring that we develop a rich research culture. Bright Future is a welcome attempt at redirecting tertiary education, but more work is needed on the best way forward.

Bryan Gould is vice-chancellor of the University of Waikato, New Zealand.

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