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Re: Joyce – The Spend is Nigh!

Stuart Middleton


1 March 2010

So why was the cabinet reshuffled and Steven Joyce given 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.

                                                                                    EdTalkNZ   8 February 2010

It didn’t take long for the first shots to be fired by the new Minister of Tertiary Education, Steven Joyce.

The recent announcement that the Government would take a look at students who fail their courses and their right to continue to draw down student loans was inevitable. The issue of what the sector calls “a cap on numbers” and what the Government sees as a “fixed-funding system” has always been about the difficulty of controlling the impact of expenditure that follows growth of student numbers caused by student loans.

So the figure of 50% who fail to complete their qualifications is dragged out. And so it should be.

It is a bit unfair to single out universities – this statistic applies to all post-secondary education and training. It is also wise to reflect on the fact that this statistic is constant across the Group-of-Five English-speaking systems that have gone down the road less travelled by the rest of the world. (This group consists of New Zealand, Australia, United States of America, Great Britain and Canada.)

Another matter of interest is that this statistic has remained remarkably stable over perhaps 60 years. The performance of post-secondary institutions and providers seems to doddle along much as it always has. (Don’t be fooled by the escalation of participation rates which has largely been achieved by population growth, steam, vapours and mirrors!)

What has changed since the early 1990’s is the growth of student contribution to tuition costs in that set of countries. This has in turn been matched out of the public purse by student loan schemes.

The Minister’s desire to see “more money going into actually training EFTS” (NZ Herald, Saturday, 27/02/2010) has therefore to focus on taking out of the system students who are likely to fail or not complete their qualifications or on reducing access to student loans or a combination of both.

So what can we expect?

First, expect an attempt to introduce minimum level of performance that an individual student must meet in order to qualify for continued access to student loans. It is suggested that this could be 50% of attempted courses. On the face of it this might seem reasonable. Part-timers taking one paper or course would have to pass to continue with a loan. A full-time student taking six papers or courses would have to pass three. Wait, this doesn’t look like a very acceptable level of performance! And what of post-graduate qualifications that include papers and theses?

Secondly, we are told (Sunday Star Times,  Sunday, 28/02/2010) that there is an investigation as to what constitutes a reasonable “University Entrance” qualification. This challenges the notion not only of open access to university (for over 20-year olds) but also brings with it an inevitably increased likelihood of higher levels of selection by universities.

Open access to higher education was introduced in the Group-of-Five in one form or another to allow returning soldiers to enter HE institutions after World War II. (In part this was driven by the need not to displace women who had joined the work-force in the absence of the male workers overseas.) But it became something much more than that; access to a college degree became the American Dream and Community Colleges were to be a major pathway to achieving the dream. In New Zealand, the development of the Polytechnics to some extent were also to play that role.

So decisions which are ostensibly about the extent of open access to higher and further education and training are not simple decisions about tertiary education expenditure, they are also decisions about equitable access to the opportunities opened up by continued education.

 It could be that the solutions will be found in treating access to student loans by different groups of people differently. Perhaps universities will simply have to become more expensive for students who wish to enter only with a “University Entrance” and cheaper for those wishing to enter with say a first qualification from a polytechnic (this would replicate the community college / college “open entry” track in the USA).

 USA universities are generally much smaller than those in NZ (Stanford has only 15,000 students) but the really big ones are highly selective.  (e.g. Berkeley receives close to 50,000 applications and enrolls just over 4,000 undergraduates. They also enroll just over 2,000 students from other colleges and universities. So they take only top students. But the four-year graduation rate is only 61%. Are too many students in universities? Or too many doing some courses?

 In the Group-of-Five, the overall completion level isn’t worth boasting about anywhere. Would it be good to start to ask why, rather than simply respond by attempting to control the costs?

 Would it be good to have a calm re-assessment of pathways into and through post-secondary qualifications?

 Would it be even better to rethink the relationship between universities and polytechnics and to have them working more closely together to meet the needs of the country and its population? Coordinated pathways could save both students and government.

The current student loan schemes are a burden to everyone. Especially students. It is time for a major review, not minor tinkering.

Published inEducation

One Comment

  1. Phil Ker Phil Ker

    Well put Stuart – as usual.
    Whilst we are on the topic , perhaps we could look at another “taken for granted” here in NZ – our belief that students should study for approx 26 weeks of the year ( most universities) or 34 weeks of the year ( most polytechnics). As a consequence, students typically amble through a degree in three years, and a diploma in two. The altenative – treat study a little more like work and have degrees completed in two years and diplomas in eighteen months. Net result = less student debt, less paid out in allowances, tertiary teaching infrastructure operating 47/48 weeks of the year, lower value of earnings foregone whilst studying, fewer people contesting scarce jobs in the holiday periods ( students would need to take a holiday), and arguably better qualification completions. Yes, there are some downsides, which I am happy for others to argue. But we already have the wonderful precedent set by the midwifery profession, which is in the second year of the four year degree studied in three years. And the sky has not fallen on chicken licken’s head!!

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