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First up, I wanted to give my thanks and gratitude to all those in Team Vic, whether they are competitors, officials, managers, sponsors or supporters, who went to Christchurch for the University Games. By the time you get to my column, you will know that we did not win the Shield, which makes me sad, but not ungrateful. I am eternally indebted for being with such a dedicated group of people who made great sacrifices to attend. You honour all of us with your fundraising, competing, support, and good-will during these past few months. It was a highlight of my Presidency to be with you throughout the week and I shall never forget it.
Now onto this week’s topic. I’m sorry to get all serious on you all, but I wanted to talk about an issue that has been moving about in the background, without much light cast upon it.
Late last year, the Tertiary Education Minister and Deputy PM Michael Cullen (Labour, List) released to much fanfare the 2007 – 2012 Tertiary Education Strategy, the document defining how the Government was going to fund Tertiary Education. Like most Government announcements, it was big on broad vision, but skimpy on the details. It has been the work of the Tertiary Education Commission, the group responsible for funding universities and other tertiary education institutes, to make the policy happen.
Part of these new measures includes making university funding more relevant to the national and local interest, including a focus on “distinctive contributions”: how universities will either work with each other where they offer significantly similar courses, and offer significantly unique courses to students.
The end goal is to end the adversarial approach of getting as many students as possible. Also, current funding is moving towards more postgraduate students, both in number and quality. It’s a dramatic shift, one that has some immense challenges, but the biggest challenge was the moment the Government said that it had to be done by 2008; coincidentally an election year.
Well it’s been nearly five months, and there’s been very little in terms of action by the TEC. There has been little or no momentum on negotiations with Universities as to how they will be funded, in spite of the plethora of guidelines and explanations made by the TEC in how to get the reforms done.
Likewise, there is considerable fear in Universities that the TEC, which is currently undergoing a monumental rearrangement of staff to see through the changes, will not have enough people with either the knowledge or experience to tackle the changeover.
So what’s the effect of all of this on Victoria students today? In terms of the cost to you as an undergraduate student, not much will change. That is to say that this University will undoubtedly attempt to raise tuition fees each chance they can, in the absence of stern and courageous leadership to find funding from elsewhere. However, if you are thinking about postgraduate study next year or in the future for that matter, this is the time to start ringing some alarm bells. There’s no guarantee that all courses offered today will be available in the future, particularly in those courses with little financial benefit to the University. Already the University is looking to find ways to cast away “unproductive research institutes and centres,” with the end goal of closing some centres entirely. In one sense, it pigeon-holes VUW into a situation that “distinctive contribution” is only that, so long as the money is there. If this goes ahead, it will be a shame that unique research will be lost, and defeats the purpose of a university as a research institution.
The new funding schedule also forces Universities to focus on completion of degrees (to the extent that future funding will be cut), which will undoubtedly hit Maori and mature students hardest: without a significant effort in pastoral care and government support for these students while studying, there’s no point for Universities to encourage these groups to attend university (and take the statistical risk). Also, even if Victoria somehow does well out of all of this, we may lose funding to prop up underperforming Universities. That will mean that one way or another, students will get screwed.
So, it’s a rather unsettling state of affairs… thank you Government!