I’m sorry, but Tim Shadbolt is just plain wrong

Towards the top of Auckland’s Queen Street is a significant corporate building which sports, alongside an impressive crest, the bold proclamation Otago University.

No doubt the move to Auckland was designed and planned by young executives in a marketing company on a lucrative contract to the university. One senses a corporate recommendation to take the battle for market share to the heart of Auckland under the Government’s previous bums-on-seats funding policy for tertiary education.

Perhaps some of Otago’s leading lights were proud of their efforts to poach students with the added bonus of giving Auckland the fingers at the same time. This was the sort of corporate piracy which was established and encouraged by National’s Max Bradford in the 1990s and then consolidated by Labour’s Steve Maharey after the 1999 election.

Market-led policies were the order of the day in a brave new world where education was a commodity to be purchased in the marketplace and institutions would compete for students just as baked bean manufacturers compete for customers.

Most universities and polytechs got into this stupid and unsavoury business and have fought pointless turf wars for students. The quality of education for many Kiwi students plummeted.

Initially, the low-quality courses were in the private sector but inevitably the rot spread to public institutions with such things as twilight golf and free cellphones used to entice enrolments and increase funding from the Government.

The head of one Auckland polytech complained to me that it had established a high-quality degree course in commerce with a high entry standard, but were immediately undercut by a local university opening a similar commerce course with no entry requirement.

Southland Institute of Technology joined the rush and established courses in Christchurch to exploit the Government’s funding model.

In April last year the country heaved a sigh of relief when the new Minister of Tertiary Education at the time, Michael Cullen, announced the end of bums-on-seats funding and its replacement with three-year funding schemes based on approved plans for courses and locations. Institutions were to focus on quality and would not be funded for courses they ran outside their areas if these courses were already being provided locally.

Enter Invercargill Mayor Tim Shadbolt. He has complained loudly that Southland Institute of Technology is to lose some of its government funding for courses it runs outside Southland. He says SIT is being punished for its success and innovation.

He is wrong. It may have been successful in a constricted parochial way but it’s hardly innovative. Picking the low-hanging fruit in Christchurch is of no use to quality education either in Christchurch or Southland.
Shadbolt now says he wants to campaign to advocate a change of government.

At one level one can sympathise with a mayor defending his local patch, particularly when operating outside the local area SIT has generated enough income, with the support of local Southland businesses, to develop a fees-free policy. But he needs to open his eyes and look at the broader picture for all our students.

Every Kiwi kid deserves the same opportunity for free university or polytech education that Shadbolt’s generation enjoyed for itself but has now denied to its children.

If his campaign to bring down the Government was based on its refusal to provide free tertiary education for all New Zealand students and an alternative government was prepared to deliver this, I would be delighted to join.

But it isn’t anything of the sort. It’s a shoddy and shallow campaign based on selfish parochialism; a childish tantrum in other words. However, such is the fragility of the Government it’s showing signs it may buckle under this attack from Shadbolt. It shouldn’t. Narrow parochialism has a limited place in education and undermining the new funding mechanism would be a tragedy for all young New Zealanders including those from Southland.