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May 27, 2013 | by  | in Opinion |
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The McCourt Report

Last week I explained the impact of Budget 2013 from a student perspective, but what I didn’t cover was the wider context in which National’s relatively small changes exist, and how they’re part of something much bigger.

Once upon a time, tertiary education was regarded as a public good in New Zealand, enriching lives and improving the lot of everyone through a more productive country—so the Government picked up the tab. Today, a university education is seen by most students as a thing to buy from individuals, with the expectation of some private benefit down the road, like a big salary. Today, more than 70 per cent of students have some sort of loan, and tens of thousands of us borrow to pay rent, buy food and heat our flats. Once upon a time, having a more educated population was inherently good, whereas today a narrow focus on selected outputs dominates what and how much we fund within universities and polytechnics. Completions, research productions, and the potential earning for degree recipients form the basis of our policies. The ivory towers have been knocked down and rebuilt with PBRF cash piles.

So when did it all change? If you’re still reading this, then you probably know the story: In the late 1980s, under Labour’s right-wing reforms, the Government introduced tertiary fees, followed by an even more right-wing National Government which raised these fees, and added interest-bearing loans. Students paid upwards of six per cent a year on their ballooning student debt, as unis price-gouged throughout the 1990s. The Government also encouraged the internal market we have now, whereby institutions compete for students, spending millions of our fees on expensive marketing campaigns. Education was now regarded as a private cost individuals pursued for private benefit. The state would have a decreasing role in supporting its populace into the halls of Auckland or Otago.

When Labour came back into government in 1999 it had repented for a lot of its ’90s right-wing antics, but left most of the right-wing reforms in place, choosing to tinker around some of the sharper edges of the reforms.

Labour went about stopping fee increases and then establishing the fee maxima policy (where fees can only go up by a maximum four per cent each year). Labour introduced interest-free student loans in 2005. That Government also increased funding to the sector by 74 per cent in real terms between 2000 and 2007.

Despite the fact that participation by Kiwis in tertiary education shot up massively during the 2000s, many on the left (and in student unions) have accused Labour of only tinkering, of maintaining the neoliberal consensus, and even advancing it in areas like incentivising enrolment of international students. No doubt Labourites would defend this record, but I think it’s fair to ask the question: where was the alternative vision? Labour’s Tertiary Education strategies left most of National’s frameworks in place.

Like Labour, the current Government has written off providing any new vision for the tertiary sector. If students and their unis are a political football, then Labour and National have been kicking us around the centre line for 25 years. It’s a compromise. But a compromise between what? A commercialised vision of tertiary education and a slightly less-commercialised vision of tertiary education?

Tertiary education is now regarded as a global market, where New Zealand could only hope to compete. Forgotten are those pre-Rogernomic ideals of the purpose of education for the public benefit and national interest: that graduates have a sense of purpose that goes beyond dollar signs; that education is good for more than profit for profit’s sake. Just look at the messages we get regularly from the current government: that learning is a luxury; that they’re only willing to back us for degrees that bring in high incomes (in the current market); that students are lazy anyway, so can be ignored. Where’s the positive vision about the role tertiary education can have in delivering that Brighter Future? Where are New Zealand’s Mark Zuckerbergs, or Christopher Hitchenses? Without backing a varied, vibrant, creative and inspired tertiary sector, that brighter future is nothing but a cliché on the back of a bus.

Building a 21st-century economy in a globalised world isn’t detracted by a transformation of the investment we put into universities and students. In fact, it’s completely necessary.

Next week I’ll explore if and how we can reignite the debate over tertiary education, the need for a new vision for the sector, and what’s fucked with a student movement that isn’t delivering it.

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