Funding Woes

Stuart Middleton

EdTalkNZ

15 March 2010

It is often said that the devil is in the detail. As the detail of the Government’s approach to money and education is looking more and more to have, if not yet the work of the devil, at least the beginnings of some heat. This might be the shorts that precede the main film – The Budget.

First Minister Joyce gives us detail of his trio of measures. We had been warned about the link to be made between student performance and funding. It must be said that this approach seems very tentative and relatively minor and whenever the minister speaks about it he seems to have a good grasp that this could be a move that, whatever is done, has a downside that could challenge any benefits.

But it is about time that the issue of postsecondary student performance was addressed – if money is to be tight it becomes even more imperative. (Of course the fact that the money comes from taxpayers might in itself be a reason for cracking this whip.)

The second part of the trio is to look at student access to loans when it is not matched by good performance. Little information is ever presented to support the statement that some students are rorting the system, that others become study-ghosts, that many are simply adding to their personally sound financial background. What is the truth? How big is the problem? That is what should guide the scale of the response.

Finally there is the determination to review the number of qualifications in New Zealand and this deserves three rousing cheers. The messy current situation, over 6,000 certificates, diplomas and degrees, was driven by institutional hubris and the heady days (should that be daze?) when every provider thought that they alone could see a point of difference. The ITO structure was designed in part to maintain a watching brief over this and to maintain a credible and coherent portfolio in each area. They didn’t achieve this (not entirely their fault I must say) and it now takes intervention at the level of a Government-inspired review to herd the qualification seagulls.

And it must be comprehensive. The answer is to have a national system of qualifications. Let’s get back to the days when there were well-understood qualifications such as the NZ Certificate of Engineering and another one for science and so on.

Why so many B.Bus. degrees for instance? Stand by for arguments to be put forward explaining that the XYZ School of Business has discovered some essential elements that no-one else has stumbled across, or that they teach in a very special way known only to them. That could be so but why not share all this, get the imprimatur of the professional bodies and have it taught by all providers?

It is unfair to pick on Business because this argument could apply to a whole host of subjects and disciplines.

Then we had the compulsory knee-jerk about the announcement that the Ministry of Education had to identify savings of $25m over three years. I suspect that the MOE is only about as bureaucratic as most education providers therefore the savings will have to make cuts into activity that might on the surface seem worthwhile. That’s what happens when faced with this kind of task. But the scale of it needs to be kept in proportion.

Making a cut of $25m over three years will require the Ministry of Education to save 1.8 cents in every $100 that it spends. In truth each and every organisation and institution and provider in education could achieve this.

Some have criticized the planned moves from the government as ignoring that quite obvious fact that education is an investment not a cost. Forget talk of investment and concentrate on cost. The cost of educational failure is huge compared with the cost of success. So spending what money we have should be focused on success. Funding failure is investing only in additional cost.

Interestingly there might not be a link between the dollars committed to education and the outcomes. In the United States of America, public expenditure on education increased by 400% during the period 1970 to 2000 while both Reading and Mathematics scores decreased by 25% during the same period. We usually solve this issue by dismissing the reading and maths tests!

We would do well to look at all expenditure in institutions and provider organisations – it could be that we are doing the wrong things from time to time and the “new” money we need will come from old money that is not being used productively.

We will probably learn soon that greater accountability will become the overt theme – focusing on levels of failure, and students who fund their failure through public loans and the costs of a ridiculously repetitive qualifications portfolio are all first signs.

Last week the Australian Deputy Prime Minister / Education Minister announced that shortly they would introduce the My University web site that will be a mechanism for comparisons between those institutions in Australia. This follows hard on the heels of My Schools which does the same thing for the school sector.

The big five systems seem to me to be entering the first stages in understanding the extent to which the educations systems of Australia, UK, USA, NZ and Canada are not serving an increasing  group of young people. Blame and accountability might be the first stages of a much greater scrutiny to be applied to what we do. Perhaps there is developing a desire to get a response to the issue that puzzles so many – who is responsible for educational failure?

 Getting an answer might be easier than responding to it!

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