Relief after a decade long fiasco in tertiary education

Oh, what blessed relief!

Throughout the community the collective sigh was palpable. It felt like a reprieve after years of oppression.

It’s rare for any government announcement to get this response but it did when Minister of Education Michael Cullen announced last week that government funding mechanisms for tertiary education will change from “bums on seats” to focus on quality outcomes for young New Zealanders.

In a rare outbreak of unity virtually every group directly involved in education received the news with acclaim. Students, parent groups, staff organisations, university and polytech leaders, industry training organisations and most business groups have welcomed the policy change as a big step in the right direction. Signs of discontent have predictably come from the Business Roundtable’s Education Forum and some grumbling from National but the overwhelming reaction has been positive.

It comes after an awful 10 years in tertiary education. The problems have been endless with poor quality courses, lack of accountability and enormous waste of resources which has left students and the community shell-shocked and short-changed.

Among the lowlights has been the explosion of funding for low-quality, private tertiary providers at the expense of our polytechs and universities. In 1999 government funding for PTE’s was just $17million but under Labour this rose to a staggering $150million in just 4 years. This spawned an epidemic of low-quality courses – initially in the private sector but inevitably spreading to state providers as they too were caught up in the race for funding. An indication of the size of the scandal came in a survey of 480 PTE qualifications by the Tertiary Education Commission last year which showed 64% of these were of low quality or unrelated to our community needs.

The students who suffered the most were those on lower level courses – often Maori and Pacific students – caught in a merry-go-round of well funded but poor quality “going no-where, doing nothing” courses with no meaningful qualifications even after several years study.

This is a shameful legacy of market driven madness with both National and Labour to blame for the mess.  National set the ball rolling but from 1999 it was Labour’s Steve Maharey who, after initial dithering, returned Labour to its 1980’s free-market roots and adopted National’s policy whereby tertiary institutions – both public and private – would compete for students – and hence government funding.   This began a race to the bottom.

To attract more students many university courses lowered their entry criteria while some PTE’s and polytechnics offered bribes and inducements such as free cell phones or free computers to get enrolments.

More tens of millions were wasted on advertising as institutions competed for students and satellite campuses appeared all over the country as universities and polytechs fought turf wars.

Despite all this Labour has stood somehow impotent until now, unable to drag itself from a bog of its own making.

It allowed funding for low quality courses to surge in the private sector because many PTE’s are Maori providers and it suited Labour to point to burgeoning Maori tertiary education numbers while also being able to point to lower numbers of young Maori in the dole queues.

The rort on public funds only became an issue when some Polytechs developed similar unsavoury courses. National and ACT then went onto the attack. They were strangely silent over several years about the appalling waste of public money in private education but Rodney Hide and Bill English positively salivated as they described the millions wasted in our publicly funded polytechs and Wananga.

Labour tried to show it was on top of the problem and joined the bash on Maori with Trevor Mallard throwing the baby out with the bathwater in his bully-boy attacks on Te Wananga o Aotearoa.

Small wonder then at the relief last week. With Cullen’s announcement the failure of Labour’s “market-led” tertiary education policy could not be more complete. It was one of the most hair-brained conceptions to come from the free-market ideologies of the past 20 years.

It didn’t have to happen. It was predicted from the outset and just as night follows day the disaster unfolded.

Wedded as they are to the market there is still a long way for the government to go. Cullen has taken just the first step and time will tell if Labour has learnt anything substantial from this decade-long fiasco.

But out of the tertiary mess politicians have created it would be great if we all remembered that quality education at all levels is a right of citizenship rather than a mechanism to make profit.