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May 11, 2009 | by  | in Features |
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What Aunty Helen and Uncle Michael did next…

Once upon a time—well, ten years ago—the Labour party won the general election. They came in guns blazing, old Aunty Helen and Uncle Michael. It was a time when the Alliance still existed as a parliamentary party, Winston was blessed with job security and Jim Anderton didn’t belong to a party named after himself. I was 11. I don’t really remember the election in great detail, but I do recall that I had a much-mocked obsession with politics. Small country schools and nerdy 11-year-olds don’t mix.

I lacked the foresight at the time, despite my nerdy ways, to study Labour’s Tertiary Education Policy in great detail. I’m kicking myself right about now. After nine years under National, that whole ‘change mood’ thing took hold of the nation, and Labour’s plans for tertiary education seemed appealing to the masses of students drowning in a sea of debt.

Following the deregulation of the Tertiary Education sector under National, student numbers had increased dramatically. There were no caps on the number of places in courses, and competitive marketing was undertaken by universities to attract greater numbers of students. Much of the govern- ment’s funding was allocated under the ‘bums on seats’ model, where tertiary institutions were handed out money based on the number of equivalent full-time students (EFTS) enrolled. Labour, invigorated by nine years on the opposition benches, rediscovered its identity as a party with a social heart. A review of the tertiary education system began quick-smart in 2000, and a Tertiary Education Advisory Committee was estalished (TEAC). It released some reports and the government made some very important decisions. Tertiary education was not to be a money-making venture—it was to be for the good of the nation. Tertiary education was recognised as a “key enabler of social and economic development” in New Zealand by the folks at the Ministry of Education.

Some were concerned that the continued use of the EFTS model could lead to a slip in the standards and quality of tertiary qualifications offered in New Zealand. While there was no conclusive evidence of this early on in Labour’s term, the funding reforms introduced were seen as a means by which the standard of education could be maintained. However, it didn’t stop the shit hitting the fan a bit later on regarding the proliferation of low-quality tertiary courses, but that’s an entirely different kettle of fish. As well as changes to the student loans scheme and student allowances, Labour introduced a swag of new measures for the allocation of funding to tertiary institutions. The Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) was formed in 2003, and the acronym PBRF entered common usage among those in the know in the tertiary education sector. TEC, PBRF—WTF?

The TEC: the government’s BFF when it comes to tertiary education.

The TEC is “responsible for leading the government’s relationship with the tertiary education sector, and for policy development and implementation”, according to its website. The TEC was established in an amendment to the Education Act 1989, under section 159C.

So what does the TEC actually do? The TEC website says that its primary responsibility is “funding the government’s contribution to tertiary education and training offered by universities, polytechnics, wananga, private training establishments, industry training organisations and adult and community education providers.”

Huh? What does that mean? Basically, it’s the responsibility of the Minister of Tertiary Education to come up with the plan as to how tertiary education will be funded. It’s the job of the TEC to implement this plan. The government is required under the Education Act to publish a Tertiary Education Strategy (TES), which provides the basis for decision-making about tertiary education.

The TEC has $3 billion to play with every year, which it gets to give to Tertiary Education Organisations (TEOs), according to the funding framework propagated by the government of the day. The TEC helps TEOs to come up with investment plans to work out how they will respond to the government’s direction in the TES. It’s also the job of the TEC to keep tabs on the “financial, leadership and governance performance of tertiary education institutions”. As well as advising the government on the three Ps: policies, priorities and performance, the TEC plays a motivational role in helping to build “the capability and capacity of tertiary education and training to contribute to national economic and social goals.” Nice.

So what about that PBRF thing?

The Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF) has been one of the more controversial aspects of the Labour government’s reforms of tertiary education funding. The PBRF allocates funding based on the quality and output of research by each TEO. The TEC website states that the primary goal of PBRF is “to ensure that excellent research in the tertiary education sector is encouraged and rewarded.”

The research performance of a TEO is assessed and funding is allocated based on their performance in this assessment. The PBRF replaced the ‘top up’ funding for research under the EFTS model. TEOs are still funded a base amount for the number of students enrolled. The first round of ‘Quality Evaluation’ for the allocation of funding for the PBRF began in 2003. A partial round was held in 2006, and the next complete round of funding allocation will be held in 2012.

There are three ‘elements’ to the allocation of funds under the PBRF model. 60 percent of the fund is to “reward and encourage the quality of researchers”. 25 percent of the fund is allocated to reflect research degree completions, and the remaining 15 percent is allocated based on external research income.

Under PBRF, TEOs are ranked according to their research performance. The rankings determine the share of the funding pie that each TEO receives. In the last PBRF round, Otago University overtook Auckland University at the top of the rankings table. Just FYI, Victoria was ranked number four in the last round.

PBRF has been the subject of intense scrutiny and debate since its introduction. Many have criticised the increased emphasis on research encouraged by the PBRF model. One of the main areas of concern is that academic staff are scored on an individual basis, based on their research. The teaching of students—something that should be important to a learing institution—has been somewhat sidelined.

An independent review of the PBRF was conducted last year by international expert Jonathan Adams. The review was intended to assist the TEC in its decision-making regarding the PBRF and help the work of the 2012 PBRF Sector Reference Group. Adams found that on the whole, the PBRF model was “effective and delivering important and appropriate results”. However, Salient reported last year that the review found that some TEOs were “fiddling the numbers” to gain more research funding.

Adams said that there was “some wilful game playing” going on when staff were put forward for ranking under the PBRF model. “Institutions are quite clearly playing games with contractual definitions in order to alter the numbers being included,” he said.

At the time of the review, it was reported in Salient that TEC spokesman Andrew Bristol said that the system was “achieving good things” for New Zealand and New Zealand’s tertiary education sector.

Opinion remains divided over the effectiveness of the PBRF model for tertiary education funding. The TEC has recently been affected by significant staff cuts. Tertiary education funding isn’t going to leave the political agenda anytime soon. But in the midst of all this debate, it’s important to remember the other people who really matter in all this: students.

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Editor for 2010, politics nerd, panda fan and three-time award-winning student journalist.

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