Runaway growth in community education is evidence that tertiary education reform in New Zealand is not working, universities say.
Spending on the low-level courses doubled last year and has increased by more than 500 per cent since 2000. Stuart McCutcheon, vice-chancellor of Victoria University, Wellington, said: "The so-called steering of the system hasn't worked." Most of the new courses are offered by polytechnics, which Professor McCutcheon said were simply responding logically to a system that made no sense. Responsibility lay with those who administered the funding, he said, and the "obvious implication" was that money spent on community education was not available for other purposes.
Latest figures show that university surpluses in 2003 as a percentage of income averaged 2.8 per cent, while polytechnics achieved an average surplus of 16.3 per cent of income.
Tairawhiti Polytechnic made a profit of NZ$9 million (£3.1 million) last year, believed to be the largest ever by a polytechnic in New Zealand.
Its total income the previous year came to just NZ$14 million.
Three-quarters of Tairawhiti's students enrolled in community education courses. The courses are funded on the same per-student basis as other tertiary programmes, but confer no qualification and in some cases involve no direct contact between students and tutors.
Computer skills and Maori language are the main subjects offered, although topics such as golf are available. One typical course - named "Free and Easy" - consists of a workbook that teaches the use of basic computer programs.
"We're supposed to be operating within a system that has consistency and accountability," vice-chancellors' committee executive director Lindsay Taiaroa said. "Adult and community education has no external quality assurance and no fees, whereas the assumption throughout the sector is that students should pay about 30 per cent of the cost of their courses."
The government announced plans to curb community education spending in its budget, but this will not have an effect until 2005.
A spokesman for the tertiary education minister said money would be redirected to "higher priority" areas, including investment in research.
Jim Doyle, executive director of the polytechnics' representative body Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics New Zealand, said the growth in community education had surprised everyone, including the polytechnics running the programmes, He denied the money had been wasted, saying it would be necessary to look at the students and see what effect the courses had on them. They were mostly people with no previous experience of tertiary education, he said.
"If a reasonable proportion of students went on to further study you'd say it was good value. The jury is out," he said.