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March 8, 2010 | by  | in News |
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A new Minister of Tertiary Education. But will students ReJoyce?

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Average headline proves once and for all that Salient does puns better than Critic

Self-made millionaire and key architect behind National’s rise to power, Steven Joyce, has been named Anne Tolley’s successor as Minister for Tertiary Education. Joyce talks to Critic’s Caitlyn O’Fallon about his plans for the tertiary sector.

Since entering parliament in 2008, Steven Joyce has held the roles of Minister of Transport and Minister for Communications and Information Technology. In late January he replaced Anne Tolley as Minister for Tertiary Education.

The Prime Minister has explained the reduction of Tolley’s workload as giving her the maximum opportunity to concentrate on the implementation of national standards in schools. The Opposition and the media have both charged that Tolley herself was simply not up to standard.

Whatever the reason for his appointment, Joyce seems to be relishing the role. In his first three weeks, he says, “I’ve been learning a huge amount; I’m just really looking forward to getting into it.”

There is no doubt that he is busy. Like any Cabinet Minister, his schedule is jam-packed. This interview had to be rebooked after a scheduling snafu—instead of the planned face-to-face meeting in the Beehive, it ended up being a two-part phone conversation as he travelled back to the capital from the West Coast where he was visiting his first polytech.

Joyce has a lot of hard work ahead of him. He says that the key things he needs to do are make sure that taxpayers’ money is well spent, and to make sure that students get “real value” out of their tertiary education. He emphasises the value of such an education—“the reason that taxpayers and the government support students is that there’s a real public benefit out of their education”—but also points out that a huge amount of money is spent on students, and that the amount is growing.

One of the main problems Joyce sees is low completion rates in part-time courses.

“It’s not all just about enrolments,” he says.

“I think we’re putting a lot of extra money in the system, but the number of graduates, of universities for example, hasn’t gone up that much.” 

Joyce was unwilling to offer any solutions to the problem at this point, or for several other issues, stressing that three weeks is not long enough for him to be able to give all the answers.

He certainly didn’t rule out the possibility of changing the fee maxima policy, the policy that stops our fees from increasing by more than five per cent each year. He says it’s too early for him to comment.

“I haven’t formed any ideas on what’s appropriate in terms of the way it’s being run currently.”

Critics of the policy, brought in under Labour, say that it effectively guarantees that fees rise five per cent every year. At the same time, however, changes could potentially have alarming consequences for the price of a university education.

Joyce was also reserved on the matter of changes to the student loan policy. He did confirm several times that he has absolutely no intention of reintroducing interest on student loans. He’s been more talkative since, however, with reports saying that he is looking into tightening the scheme and stating that some people are making poor use of their loans.

Joyce reportedly admitted that backing the interest-free scheme was a political ploy in the 2008 election. Prime Minister John Key has also told parliament that the government is working to “ensure that taxpayers’ generosity is not being exploited.”

This is clearly an issue for Joyce. He points out that the policy is expensive, as “48 cents for every dollar of loan is written off effectively by the Government.”

However, he does encourage people to take advantage of the fruits on offer.

“We actually have one of the most generous taxpayer-supported schemes in the OECD, so people should make the most of it, [and] make sure they get the tertiary education they need in their lives.”

One concern for the government is how those student loans are being used. Joyce says they want to be sure that “people are using it properly to advance their academic careers”. He does say that on the whole he believes people don’t abuse the system.

Roger Douglas’ Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill is another issue Joyce isn’t willing to say anything solid about. The bill is before select committee at the moment, and in its current form would make membership of all students’ associations like OUSA and VUWSA voluntary.

Joyce is unwilling to comment on the bill yet.

“We’ve all heard the arguments before, but I’d like to hear what the select committee have to say before I’ll offer an opinion.”

Perhaps mindful of his involvement with students’ associations while he was studying, Joyce says that there are “benefits that students get from their associations which they may or may not immediately recognise, like the student media for example.”

Of course, Joyce is alluding to one of the strongest arguments against the bill: a lot of us aren’t aware of how much the students’ associations do, so if membership were voluntary we might miss out on important benefits. No doubt you will hear this argument and similar ones repeated ad nauseam in these very pages by our own student politicians as the 31 March deadline for submissions to the select committee approaches. For those student politicians it is heartening to know that the Minister is, at least, entertaining their argument.

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