Historically, the National Party could hardly be described as the defender of the student. Since they gained office in 2008, the National government has restricted entry to university and tried to get a handle on spiralling student debt, which is set to hit $12 billion by the end of the year. Minister for Tertiary Education Steven Joyce has recently stated that students are well looked after and ought to “keep their heads down”. Salient news editor Stella Blake-Kelly talked to Joyce to find out what the deal is.
Do you think tertiary education is a right or a privilege?
Neither—and that’s a good thing. But I don’t know that I’d describe it as a right, because what happens when you describe something as a right is generally people then think that it should be free. And so I just don’t think it’s helpful. it’s a political statement, rather than anything else. I just think it’s something really good for people to participate in and it provides skills which will really help them in later life as a general rule.
Student services levy—your recent proposal, why the change in direction? And why is it the Government’s place to decide what services a university can and can’t provide with the Levy?
Because I think the institutions, not just universities, that charge it are showing signs of really operating in what you might call a geographical monopoly situation. Where the fees have gone up very significantly and there’s not really any visibility in terms of what they’re spent on. You get different noises from different universities, some saying that it’s absolutely necessary for the sort of no-academic stuff, and then others posturing that they are putting up their student services levies because they’re not getting enough money in other ways. And either way, and if that’s the case it’s an attempt to get around the fee regulation, and so what we’ve decided is needed is a much more transparent system, which identifies what can be—through a gazetting process—what can compulsory fees be charged for and then requires them to lay out how they use those fees. So that students can see whether they are used well or not.
Why the specific restrictions on things that it can be spent on? Why can student media, as opposed to representation be funded through the compulsory levy?
Yeah it’s quite interesting, and it is quite challenging, and there’s an element of you can argue some of those are the boundary. For example student media, you can have a debate as to whether that’s appropriate to include or not. But what officials have tried to do is come up with a set that nearly all students benefit from, of services that could not be charged on an individual basis, or not reasonably provided on an individual basis. And then gone out for consultation on that, and we’re studying the feedback on that consultation at the moment.
With voluntary student membership coming in next year, universities may be contracting out to provide those services—do you envisage that they’ll be contestable?
That will be entirely up to the university and the students concerned.
Why do you support Voluntary Student Membership?
I think philosophically it doesn’t make sense to require somebody who goes to a particular institution to belong to a particular association. I think we can all understand that concept. And that’s why ultimately I am comfortable with change.
At the last fee setting meeting, Victoria University Council voted to raise fees by the maximum 4 per cent under current Fee Maxima Policy, and they cited cuts to tertiary education funding as their reason. Do you have any plans to change this situation?
There hasn’t been any cuts, so they’re making it up.
So you’re saying they’re not telling the truth?
What I’m saying is they are either mistaken or deliberately obfuscating. The reality is that over the last two years, firstly the amount per student went up 2.2 per cent in the 2010 Budget. And it’s gone up two further per cent this year on a per student basis—so they’re making it up if they’re saying that is the case.
A number of Council members also said that they current funding model was unsustainable, and that the sector was at “breaking point”—do you or National intend to make any changes to the current tertiary education funding model?
No, not significant ones. And I disagree with that premise. All universities are doing well, they are well funded, they are profitable, and in fact they could continue to improve their income. And there are a couple of areas that they could really focus on and that’s the commercialisation of their research. And also, their international revenues. And in the case of international revenues, they lag well behind their Australian counterparts which they compete with for academic talent. And so I would suggest to them that that’s an area of focus.
Are you concerned with where New Zealand universities placed in the latest QS rankings?
No, because you can’t take those rankings in isolation, and in other rankings some of the universities have gone up. I mean obviously you always want to see them do better, and we are in a very competitive international environment. So I suppose you could say there is some concern about the QS, but it’s balanced with what’s happened with the other rankings. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that the taxpayer should just write out a bigger cheque.
So despite many universities around the country saying they need more funding, you don’t think they need it?
Well I would say there has never been a time where they haven’t asked for more funding. If you look back in history, I doubt that there has ever been a time when a university has said ‘we’ve got enough, thanks very much’. So there’s a certain amount that which goes with the territory. And when you deal with the global financial crisis and the recession, and you look at what’s happening to universities internationally, I think that the New Zealand university system is well funded by comparison.
The brain drain—many of New Zealand’s graduates choose head overseas for a better life, and they take taxpayers’ investments in their education with them, what are your views in this situation?
Well a couple of things. Firstly, I think that some people go and there’s no doubt about it, and some people come back. And there’s a natural exchange of minds if you like, and we lose some and we gain some through that process. And the international skilled labour market is much more mobile than it was when I was coming through university. And even then quite a lot of kiwis headed overseas for their OE, some came back and some didn’t. So firstly, that’s part of that and nothing is going to change that, because we do live in a mobile world. But it does point out that you have to have competitive tax settings, and a competitive economy to be able to retain as many of those as you can, and attract new ones in to replace them. And that’s why we’ve put so much focus on the tax system, and on strengthening the economy generally. Because that’s ultimately, no matter what people say, that’s ultimately what they do—they go where the exciting jobs are and the only way to get the jobs exciting is to make your economy more competitive. So that would be the primary comment on that.
I think in terms of them taking their investment overseas, yep that’s part of the challenge, although of course we get other countries investments back here. But I do think that they need to take responsibility for paying back their student loans, and we have a very poor record of students going overseas and repaying their student loans. Which is why we are putting a much stronger emphasis on those overseas, particularly in Aussie and the UK, repaying their loan to keep the integrity of the student loan system.
Do you support interest-free student loans?
Yep, the Government and I have supported it and we don’t plan on any change.
Students are part of the university community, which is meant to be the “critic and conscience of society”—given the amount of protests nationwide about the state of tertiary education and universities citing lack of government funding as a critical factor for cuts to—[cut off]
A, there have been no cuts. And B, I must say I haven’t noticed that there has been a massive level of protest. In fact the last one in Auckland yesterday I think they raised 20 people.
Yes, but the one on Monday had 300. You said that they should “keep their heads down”, do—[cut off]
That was just my advice in relation to fees. I can tell them that most New Zealanders actually think that students are in a pretty good position at the moment. And I don’t know that politically the challenges that the country faces that people really think that students should somehow be more looked after than they are currently. We actually have a very, very generous student support system, one of the most generous, if not the most generous in the world.
In a couple of words, why should students vote National at the election?
Because we are supporting the tertiary system. We’ve got more places in universities than ever before. We’re encouraging universities to provide results, which means looking after their students and encouraging their students better than they have in the past. And we’re making sure that the student loan scheme is sustainable, by chasing up those who go overseas without paying. So I think for those three reasons alone, I could tell you more if I had more time. But I think those three reasons alone, I think they are very good reasons to vote National if you are a student