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March 12, 2012 | by  | in Opinion |
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Presidential Address: “Where’s The University?”

Amidst the large numbers of new students at the Big Play Out during New Students Orientation, a student approached me to ask a question before she started living the best years of her life. “Where’s the University?”

The iconic Hunter Building and other significant structures at Kelburn Campus sit on the hill overlooking the capital. They’re large enough to host a respected tertiary institution that will set people up for a life and career that is more likely to be better for them and their community than if they didn’t.

Sure, it’s amusing to think that somebody didn’t know where the University is. But take a moment to remind yourself what it was like to take your first steps at this university as one of its students—for many, the experience was daunting and overwhelming. The first year student who asked me that question has every chance to go on to be a leader in her field, but the only reason why is that she has access to this University.

We recognise as a society that university education is both a private and public good, which is why the funding model for your university involves your individual contribution and a contribution from the government. Access is important. Why? Because if this is a public and private good, then we accept that having a greater number of people benefiting from a quality tertiary education has good consequences for the individual, for society, and for our economy.

That’s why politicians wax lyrical about the benefit of a university education.

If you’ve heard any politician address a crowd of students they will always acknowledge this. But here’s the sad reality: successive governments have consistently underfunded the tertiary sector for decades.

The student who asked me where the University was has probably introduced herself to debt, so a good next question to ask is ‘what am I getting from this university?’

If she asked Steven Joyce, the minister responsible for tertiary education, about what she is getting for her debt then she’d likely get the response that students got at a recent conference. “The New Zealand student loan system is one of the most generous in the world so we should probably keep our heads down about asking for any more in this current economic climate.” Keep your head down, embrace your debt, and just get on with your study. There’s a dear.

But she would be right to question him on this. Underfunding impacts her hugely, as it does for every single student. It threatens the quality of the education that we receive.

Less money means fewer resources. That corresponds to higher student to lecturer ratios, reducing individual student to staff contact time. New Zealand enters into the losing end of a funding gap between us and other countries, meaning that we find it harder to attract international academics and teachers.

It means less money going toward the support services that are proven to contribute to our university’s student retention and completion rate. Less funding means that specialised disciplines are discontinued.

Underfunding affects you directly.

VUWSA works hard to make an economic and social case to sufficiently fund your education. We also do this so that others get the same opportunity of access that you have had. Because when students work out where the university is and start doing the work, they deserve the best that they are paying for. That makes for a merrier, smarter, more productive, and innovative society and economy.

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