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Backing winners: The education portfolio shuffle


Stuart Middleton 


8 February 2010

What do you make of the shuffle of the education portfolios in the cabinet – the shift of responsibility for tertiary education from Hon Ann Tolley to Hon Steven Joyce? Clearly, the common kerfuffle shouted, Tolley is failing to deliver, she struggles in her portfolio, and so on and so forth.

If the Super Bowl had been won by a margin of 73 to 14 this weekend you would have to say that the result reflected a pretty one-sided contest. So you would have to conclude that the result of an opinion poll reported in the NZ Herald as producing a 73-14 result as also being one-sided.

If Tolley has “failed” by winning only 73% community support for the Government’s National Standards policy then many of her cabinet colleagues must be wondering how they too can be such a flop. 

The NZ Herald reported that 73% of parents supported the introduction of the National Standards while only 14% were not in favour. Pretty conclusive I would say. But the most interesting result of the survey was that when asked whether they understood how the new system worked, 62% reported that they did not while only 12% said that they did.

This supports the view proposed in last week’s EdTalkNZ’s column that the education profession had done less well at educating and persuading the community than has the government. The argument has been well and truly won by the view that it was time that the community was better informed as to the real progress of young students than the proposition that it was a methodologically and professionally fraught exercise.

Forget the intricate arguments. Forget the worries that league tables will emerge. Remember that the only league table parents are interested in is the one that pits their son or daughter against the pile of boys and girls they go to school with. Is my boy, is my girl doing OK? And how do you know? And are they about where they should be at their age? It isn’t rocket science according to parents even though teachers with some justification believe that it is a difficult and complex business.

Or put another way, parents don’t care a fig for our chatter. Simply, they want to know if Sione or Moeawa (or Emma and Zac) can read or write at a level that is appropriate to their age. It is time for the teaching profession to acknowledge their right to this and, as we say these days, move on!

So why was the cabinet reshuffled and Steven Joyce give responsibility for Tertiary Education?

Read much into the accompanying statement that the government saw the issues in tertiary education as being predominantly economic. As Minister of Transport, Steven Joyce is well used to looking at proposals for unblocking congestion, for getting traffic moving to its destinations and for seeing that the principle of spreading the money was leavened with a modicum of common sense. So, expect some action.

Forget the days when every little regional centre could expect a motorway / polytechnic. Forget the old polytechnic roadway network that got you from wherever you were to any destination on smooth roads with full traveler facilities. Expect travelers to have to change from the regional railcar onto the national railway that takes you to metropolitan centers. In short, expect a big shake up.

As sure as whoever made little green apples, Steven Joyce has been moved to the tertiary to get on with some radical reform. This has to do with a rationalisation of the network of provision, the strengthening of regional polytechnics’ connection to their regional roots with a clear focus for regional polytechnics on their role in regional development. They will not be expected to contribute beyond this. Nor will they be funded to do so.

The challenge to achieving this will be entirely political rather than economic or educational.  Nudge nudge wink wink. Will some in the government see their pet polytechnics get favoured treatment?

The announcement of the changes to education portfolio responsibility also hinted at issues related to student allowances and such issues. This is a big one but with the current interest in taxation reform, the new tertiary minister could well search for answers in that area. Could students who successfully complete tertiary qualifications at specified levels receive taxation relief during the first few years of work? Could students successful in targeted areas receive taxation holidays while they remain in employment in that area? I think especially of teachers here.

 There is scope for some imaginative thinking in getting the tertiary system, and especially the polytechnic system, cracking in supporting the economy. Unblocking the traffic jams might not be all that different from unblocking the dysfunctional flows of the tertiary education system.

 You might conclude that the readjustment of responsibility in the education portfolios seems mostly to be backing winners!

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