Sure start on unclear aims

March 10, 2000

New Zealand's government intends a sharp change for higher education. Bryan Gould considers the effects

A change of government often means that little else changes. But the newly elected Labour government in New Zealand has already shown that it means business.

The signals were clear from the outset. New Zealand Labour had clearly learned from Tony Blair's success that it was not a good idea to promise too much. The promises made before the election were specific, radical and true to Labour's traditional values. The courage shown in promising higher tax rates for the rich, the repeal of legislation that had largely eliminated collective bargaining and the restoration of a state monopoly in accident insurance was not only rewarded by the voters but has been the leitmotiv of the first few months of government.

One emerging theme has been the emphasis on the restoration of public-service values. Heads have rolled over excessive salaries and other pay-outs to public servants. The government-owned television company has been instructed to redress the imbalance brought about by what is seen as a preoccupation with profit-making. And, in tertiary education Steve Maharey, the new minister, has announced that the competitive model is no longer appropriate.

He has the distinction of at least knowing something about tertiary education. A former university lecturer, he has already signalled what is clearly intended to be a sharp change in direction. It is too early to say whether the change will be merely one of tone, attitude and language, or something more substantial. The government has already made substantial progress in implementing its immediate election promises, but it is not clear if there is to be a continuing agenda of reform.

In tertiary education, the welcome changes do not carry us very far. Immediate relief for a student body groaning under the monstrous burden of a student loan that had assumed grotesque proportions has already been delivered. The interest rate and repayment commitments have been moderated, and students (and most of those concerned with tertiary education) are grateful.

But the change has been eclipsed by an administrative mess involving a government department - Work and Income New Zealand - which had already been in trouble over allegations of extravagance. The previous government gave Winz the job of administering the student loans scheme despite an earlier and spectacular failure in taking over the student allowance scheme.

Thousands of students trying to enrol for the new academic year found it impossible because their loans had not been approved, so they could not pay their fees. Mr Maharey has trod a judicious line between ensuring that the responsibility is sheeted home to the previous government and accepting that something must be done fast.

This issue is, however, just a hiccup. The questions of substance have yet to be resolved or even, in some cases, properly formulated.

When, for example, the minister says that competition among tertiary institutions is at an end, what does this mean? However welcome the language, the institutions have begun to look rather nervously over their shoulders at the shadow of some central government big brother.

The government's problem is that, as long as central government funding is calculated on a per capita basis, competition between institutions for students is inevitable. If the government is serious about moving away from that model, it must have in mind some more prescriptive model.

It is the shape of that model that is causing the nervousness. No one expects or would advocate a return to the central funding agency of a generation ago. But even something less fundamental would seem likely to run into the fact that the world has changed. Students do want to be able to choose where and what to study. Universities do operate in a world of market share, alliances and mergers, and of moving out of their domestic catchment areas into tempting markets elsewhere. It would be hard to put the market genie back in the bottle.

So, for example, the preoccupation with perceived national deficiencies in carrying out enough research of the right quality might be reflected in increased funding for particular institutions or types of research. This might suggest a favourable funding regime for elite institutions. On the other hand, the government is showing equal concern for New Zealand's growing regional imbalances and might wish to use the funding mechanism to help otherwise threatened institutions in small, more remote regional centres.

The minister's problem is that any attempt to use the funding mechanism in this way will unleash a veritable torrent of lobbying and special pleading.

It seems unlikely that many of the proposals in the now-abandoned white paper of the previous government will ever see the light of day. There will be no root-and-branch changes in the composition of councils. The long-held ambition to introduce a sort of capital levy on the institutions will, it is hoped, slip silently away. Quality assurance will continue to be provided by the existing and well-tried mechanisms.

All the same, it is to be hoped that the pause for breath does not last for too long. The parliamentary term of only three years is perilously short. A government that really wants to make a difference must surely be thinking in terms of a second election victory.

There is no shortage of big issues, not least the fundamental one of how much New Zealand is prepared to invest in its education and its future. It is that question that the shortly to be appointed Tertiary Education Advisory Commission (no government it seems feels comfortable without setting up such a body) should be expected to answer.

Bryan Gould is vice-chancellor of the University of Waikato.

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