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Tell us about university: where did you go and when were you there?
I went to Massey University, from 1981 to 1985 in Palmerston North. I did a vet intermediate and didn’t quite make the cut for vet school so I did a zoology degree for two years. In the first three years I passed all my papers, I was very excited. And then I started in student radio. In my fourth year I was doing economics papers. I sat six and passed three. In my fifth year I enrolled for 3 and passed none. By that time I was fully into radio.
What’s changed since then?
Nothing really. Electric light I suppose is one thing that’s showed up. It’s hard to say what’s changed because I’m not there now but they were much smaller back then. Massey was mostly agricultural and applied science which has changed a fair bit. And of course radio has changed to some degree – we (the student radio station) were the first FM radio station in Palmerston North.
Tell us more about the radio station.
There was a bunch of us at university who thought we would like to be in radio, but we were insecure enough to think that people wouldn’t hire us. Or if they did, they’d get us doing really boring jobs for a long time. The group was made up of Jeremy Corbett, myself and three other guys. We decided we would start our own radio station. We picked New Plymouth as the place to do that because a couple of us were from there originally. We decided all this during the 1984 snap election when we were doing a Radio Massey current affairs program, which are sort of like the Insight documentaries that Radio NZ does but really low budget. We had two track tape recorders back. We did all these interviews with politicians, and it was novel because student radio didn’t really do current affairs. We were conscious of the fact there wasn’t a large audience and the ones who were listening probably just wanted to hear a track from Joy Division. We went on every night for a week and after that a bunch of us realised we wanted to do radio. We did our first summer broadcast in New Plymouth in the summer of ‘84/’85 and went back for the next summer and moved to full time in 1987.
And then you worked your way up to eventually own RadioWorks.
Yea, we owned the first one between us. We had about 51% of Energy Fm, then bought Tauranga, and then Hamilton, Taupo and Rotorua and Hawke’s Bay. We ended up with about 650 staff and 22 markets at RadioWorks. It was fantastic, really brilliant times. And it all started from us wanting to play REM on the radio. Initially we weren’t even that entrepreneurial, we just wanted a decent radio station. That was our gig.
What was your favourite band back then?
It’s always been pretty eclectic. A bit of Hunters & Collectors, The Cure, I was an REM fan early on, U2 was great early on. All sorts of things, just a whole range. Prince. I had a mate of mine who made me recognize Prince’s artistic talent.
A lot of students think you listen to dramatic opera in the dark while you’re scheming and plotting the next funding cut.
[Laughs] Not at all. I learnt the piano when I was a kid so I always have enjoyed classical music. That’s why my taste is so eclectic.
Do you like any hip hop?
No didn’t really get into hip hop for some reason.
What do you do in your spare time? Do you have spare time?
I have very little spare time which is kind of the irony of it – when I left radio I was going to chill out a bit but then ended up doing this job. I probably get about 5 or 6 hours on a Saturday or a Sunday or maybe both if I’m lucky. I’ve got two young children so they get all my spare time. My daughter is helping me in my vegetable garden. It’s good because a vegetable garden doesn’t need too much attention most weeks, but it’s close enough to the house that you can have a bit of fun with it with the kids. In this game you don’t get to do much away from politics.
How old are your children?
Six and three quarters and a bit, and four and a half.
So they’ve got a while until they’re at university.
Well my daughter is almost 7, going on seventeen and if she had her way she’d be off to university quick smart.
There’s speculation that you would like to be the next leader of the National Party. Is that true?
No, it’s not something I’m interested in at all. For a start, the PM is going to be around for a long time. It just doesn’t come up. The second thing is that I think I get to do a huge amount working with industries like the tertiary sector and the economic development space. You don’t get to do that in the big job. He [John Key] works harder than me and he has to front everything. I get to do things in portfolio areas. I’m very happy and privileged to be doing what I’m doing.
National has moved to remove the requirement that a student sits on the governing body of the university. Can you give us an example of when a tertiary institution would benefit from not having student representation on the university council?
Well firstly I’m not sure that’s the test. The test is: are councils looking after students? That’s a bigger test than whether students are on the councils or not. I feel it’s a bit moot anyway because my strong view is that the universities, all of them or nearly all of them, will put a student rep on their councils anyway.
What I don’t want to do is enshrine it in the Act. Once you start, everyone wants their defined position. Next thing you know, students and the general staff and the academic staff and the CTU and the employers representative and the mayor all want designated spots, it just goes on and on. I actually think we should trust the councils and the universities per se to make the call about their own constitutions. If we put up to 4 ministerial appointees on the council, the university decides the remaining makeup.
Don’t you think it’s strange that you say you do want students on, but then you’re taking away the requirement that they are on councils?
My view is that they will be on, because in practice that’s what universities will do. I just don’t think we have to tell those institutions what the exact make up of those councils is. I think we should trust them to be smart enough- I mean we already trust them with billions of taxpayer dollars, so we should trust them to make the right calls for their institution.
What’s the logic behind increasing the proportional representation of the ministerial appointees?
It makes sense because of the amount of funding that the universities get from the taxpayer. 43% of their funding currently comes from taxpayers. So the idea that a third of the council (4 out of 12) be ministerial appointees to act as guardians of that money is not too much an ask. Ultimately universities argue for their independence and I have no difficulty with that in an academic sense. But what we saw in Christchurch is that taxpayers stand behind them financially. It’s pretty obvious that the taxpayer carries a lot of the risk. Therefore, a reasonable proportion which is less than half is fair.
The creation of a designated Maori seat on councils seems like it goes against you’re idea of giving universities more say in the makeup of their councils. Because the Treaty is between the Crown and Maori, don’t you think it would make more sense if the designated Maori seat was one of the ministerial appointments, which would allow universities to have more freedom in choosing their representatives?
It’s something for the university and the minister to work out. If there are already a couple on the council, then it may not be the most important thing for a minister to consider when making their appointments. If you define it that the minister must have one, then you might miss out on other skills that are needed. What the minister has to do is look at the balance of skills across the council, and make their appointments to balance that. I often sit down with the chancellor and say “What are you missing?”. And they’ll say “I need someone with more business skills” or “I need someone with international experience”. So I’ll try and find someone who will balance the council out.
The budget this year showed a shift towards funding STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) subjects and research. What place do you think Arts degrees have in New Zealand?
Well I think they have a very strong place, and I don’t have any concerns that we have weakness there. In fact if anything, we are slightly overdone in Arts and Social Sciences. If you look at our international rankings, we tend to do best in those spaces, and not so well in the applied science and engineering areas. All we’re doing is looking at the costs of provisions and asking ourselves whether there’s anything that we’re doing in terms of tuition subsidies that is consciously or unconsciously incentivising universities to have more of one type of student than another. And actually there is: compared to Australia for example we fund commerce and arts at a much higher level than they do. It has been much more profitable in the past for universities to add arts or commerce students. That’s because STEM subjects, with labs and practicums and so on, are much more expensive to provide. Not surprisingly we end up with more arts students and less students with engineering and physical science degrees. The idea is to hold arts and commerce steady, and up the subsidy rates for sciences and engineering. It’s about getting a balance so universities make neutral choices. NZ has less engineers by head of population, and less graduating, than any country in the OECD.
I guess that ties in with National’s plan for the economy to be technology driven?
Yes, and to do that we’ve got to have more science and engineering graduates. You can’t have a system that encourages universities to produce fewer of them by making it more expensive than other degrees. Historically we’ve had too few kids at school doing science subjects so we’ve got a lot of work to do in that space. The Sciences in Society project aims to encourage more young people to be a part of science.
Quiztime: how much do you get per week for your weekly student living allowance?($175.96)
It’s about a hundred and seventy something. It goes up with inflation so changes slightly all the time. I should add that it only started going up with inflation under this government.
The average rent in central Wellington? ($155)
I don’t know the answer, but I would be careful to assess that. There are different types of accommodation, people are different ages at university, there are different expectations as to what an apartment is and so on and so on. I don’t know the per room rate of a student in Wellington.
The Victoria University’s finance services recommended budget for living costs in a year? ($18,000)
I haven’t been on the Victoria website and seen the tool, so I wouldn’t comment on that until I’d seen it.
Rents are often drastically different in different cities, so would you consider tying student loans to the cost of living in each specific centre?
I think we have to be really careful because that would be one of the things students factor in when they choose where to study. The unintended consequences of that could be that more students study in bigger cities. For example in Auckland, where there’s already a significant proportion of the studying population. It might also incentivise students to study away from home. The overall issue is how much the taxpayer should subsidize people while they study at university and how much should students rely on their parents and part-time work. There has to be a balance there, and we can all argue it’s too much in one way or another and I’ve heard the arguments both ways. But I think at the moment it’s about right. We’ve been careful to increase the amount students can access each year so that it’s no more expensive than it was when we arrived in 2008. We’ll keep watching it and keep watching it.
There is a private benefit to university education. There’s some data coming out soon, but basically if you walk away with a degree, you’re going to be earning 60% more than someone who’s never been to university. So how much should that other person be paying for your personal gain? The classic one is doctors, who are vocal about having to pay too much for their degree. But we find they pay it off really quickly once they graduate and go into work. It’s hard to get the balance exactly right, but we think it’s about right. The changes we’ve made are primarily about encouraging people to finish their degree as quickly as they reasonably can.
The NZ Union of Students Associations have come out recently with documents showing that you had considered decreasing course related costs from $1000 to $500. Will you do that if you win this year?
No we are not considering decreasing course related costs. We’ve made our call on that- we feel it’s in the right place now.
The documents also suggested you may be cutting the student living allowance availability period from 5 years to 3 years. Will that happen? I note that this would have stopped you from getting an allowance in your last two years of university.
There’s no plans to change that. And actually for me I should have moved on in that fifth year, but anyway. Our sense is that overall it’s in the right place. Two things were going on when we were making those considerations: there was a blowout of costs which we’ve managed to halt with the overseas-based borrower initiative. You’d never be able to keep sustaining the situation we arrived to. Under Labour they had debts there rising to $650 million from 385 in just a couple of years. The other thing was that student loans were ramping up but we’ve managed to get that under control.
Some have said the Overseas-Based Borrower Initiative will lead to people being arrested at the border, some say those people just won’t come back, and the police have said they won’t waste their time going to airports to arrest people with outstanding student loans.
Arrests are really the last resort for people who refuse to take any notice. We’ve had examples of where people have signed checks for tens of thousands of dollars at the border because finally someone has said “Hang on, you’ve got a student loan and you’re coming in and out every year, you need to pay.” And because they’re doing very nicely thank you as a doctor, say, in regional Australia, they’ve said fair cop I’ll pay the check. And we don’t expect everyone to be able to pay- if there’s hardship, people can ring the IRD who are very forgiving in that way. There were far too many people who saw going offshore as a solution to their student loan. We want to make sure that it follows you wherever you go, and you have to pay it back. That way it’s fairer on those who stay in New Zealand.
If National got back in, would it consider putting interest back on student loans?
No. That’s out.
How do you think VSM has changed universities?
I think it’s great in principle that people are no longer forced to belong to an association. I think different institutions have been successful, some more than others. There’s work in progress on compulsory student service levies. I’d still like to see a more robust critique of those from student reps, and I am happy to look closely at making sure that levies are only going up by how much they need to go up and that the services that are being provided are fairly costed. Very happy to continue to meet representatives there because it’s important to make sure universities don’t get carried away in that space. And we need more discipline around that. It’s important that student money goes to things that students value.
At the last election of 42% of 18-24 year olds didn’t vote. What would you say to those people this time round?
I’d say get in there in and vote and think about what it is that you want for your country and vote. In some ways, as I said on the TV last week, it’s a healthy skepticism but If you don’t vote you can’t complain. And you should have a look what it means for your future to vote either way and if possible get out and vote.
Why do you think people our age don’t vote?
I think the difference to the 70s and 80s is that politicians decided a lot of things. More than they probably decide today. It appears that they decide less, but actually they’re still really important things like how much tax you pay. It’s not like what it was when you’d go out and see they’d raised the petrol price at midnight. So their decisions don’t affect them as directly as such. They’re still important, so you should think about your future. I think most students now feel quite independent and ready to carve their place in the world. They want to make sure they vote for people who give them a little wiggle room to do that.
Why should a student vote National when parties like Internet/MANA and the Greens are saying-
[interrupts] Here’s the news. Students won’t vote en masse for Internet/MANA. Two reasons. One, they’re smarter than that – they know nothing in life is ultimately free. Somebody has to pay. And they understand there is a balance of things. Most people don’t just vote for themselves. Despite what the newspapers say, most people are more thoughtful than that. They think “What about the future generally? What is the best deal not just for me but for the rest of New Zealand?” So why should they vote National? Because ultimately we are delivering a stronger New Zealand in an economic sense. If people are talking about job opportunities or the opportunity to grow a business or working in interesting occupations once they leave university, then I am absolutely one hundred percent convinced that they’ll get far more choice and far better incomes if they choose a National government. That means that have the option of being in New Zealand and being successful in New Zealand. And they’ll have a much better chance under us than under the alternative. For me that’s the biggest thing. And we do a good job, despite what the left will try and tell you, of supplying the public services that people want. So the tertiary sector is going pretty well, there’s a lot of investment going into the tertiary sector. Otago’s just announced big investment, Vic’s just announced big investments. We’ve found money to put into the sector. We’re showing we run this services significantly better than what Labour did. Vote National for your future, and vote National for the quality of your education is what I would say.
What are your feelings about the election this year? What’s the vibe?
I wear the hat of being the National Party’s campaign chair. I reckon at the moment it’s all pretty positive. But there’s still seventy something days left (depending on the day you print this) between now and the election, so we have to keep working very hard to get people to endorse the direction New Zealand is going. Nothing is decided til the election day, we’ve got a lot to do before election day.
What’s National’s biggest worry at this elections? From the polls it seems that for all intents and purposes you’re basically home and hosed.
Well that’s probably the biggest worry is that too many people would think that. Because it’s not true. Opinion polls are just opinion polls. They’re an opinion on a point of time of a thousand people. And they always get a bit closer towards the election.
Not only that, we don’t only want to win because Labour’s a mess, we want to win because actually people are making positive choice about our program. So if we’re gonna win, we’ve got to make sure that we really get an endorsement for what we’re doing. So we’re going to work really hard on that.
How much harder do you think it would be for National to win the election if John Key wasn’t a member?
Well fortunately that doesn’t come up for discussion. Look, we’ve got a great team, and we’ve got a great PM, and you can’t divide the two. He’s a great Prime Minister for New Zealand, he’s also got a great team. So you can’t divide one without the other. He’s going to be, in my view, around for a long time yet.
I think that’s all the questions I have.
I see you were going to ask me about Labour’s tertiary package, but I don’t think they’ve got one. There’s nothing on their website. Presumably they will announce it eventually.