In an interview with Critic in her Beehive office last week, Tertiary Education Minister Anne Tolley said that the recession will have an impact on National’s pre-election promise to improve student allowances.
In the wake of Labour’s announcement during last year’s election campaign that it would institute universal student allowances, John Key promised that his government would improve student allowances, but would not go as far as Labour’s proposal.
Half a year, an election victory and a global recession later, Tolley is downplaying expectations that any changes will be significant.
Tolley says that changes to the student allowance scheme have formed part of the Budget discussions. “I think the reality is that we’re in a different economic situation than we were even 12 months ago, and so expectations shouldn’t be high. Certainly, over time, that is where we intend to go,” she says. “It might not happen this year and we’ve had to do that with all our promises—we intended to deliver on all our promises but we just may not be able to do it this year.”
Tolley says she “absolutely” intends to deliver on the promise and says she “would like to think” it will happen before the next election. “It is all dependent on the economic situation.”
Tolley, who is also Minister of Education, has kept a low profile and given few media interviews since she took office. She has been the target of fire from the Opposition for a tour she made of AUT’s three Auckland campuses in a helicopter, and by prominent left-wing blog The Standard over what they say is a lack of knowledge about the Tertiary Education Ministry. For example, they have reported, citing unnamed sources, that she did not know what a Vice Chancellor was when she started in the job.
The Tertiary Education Minister does not have a tertiary degree, but does have a diploma in computer programming.
“When you’re a Minister, you have a governance role—you don’t need to have specialist knowledge of a particular area, you have specialist advisors,” Tolley says. “So I think you need to understand governance as against management—you have to have a good understanding of what that means. You also need, as a Minister, to be able to develop policy and implement policy—so you need to be quite a strategic thinker. Those are qualities that I’ve developed.
“Because you’re a politician, you always have to be good at listening to people, be prepared to take ideas from a wide range of people, and I think, particularly in Tertiary Education where you have such a diverse sector, that’s another quality that I bring to that job.”
Tolley came into Parliament in 1999 as a list MP based in Hawkes Bay, and went out in the 2002 election. She then moved up to the East Coast, contested that seat, and won it in 2005. John Key asked Tolley to be the Senior Whip, which she did for fourteen months. “[It] is a bit like school teaching I think—it’s a bit like being the school matron. But a really great job to have—you get to understand the workings of Parliament. It was a really good job, I really enjoyed it.”
Tolley took over the education portfolio when former Dunedin-based MP Katherine Rich decided not to stand in the last election.
During the election campaign, Tolley visited Otago and has plans to return for a visit. Tolley has already met with University of Otago Vice Chancellor David Skegg, but is coy on saying what specific issues were discussed.
While the recession has put a dampener on hopes of student allowance improvements, Tolley says other things are getting done. For example, she says that she has asked •••••NZQA to have a look at the national qualifications framework because she believes there are “too many” local courses. “I’m getting letters from students who have … not understood that [their course] wasn’t part of the national framework—it’s a local qualification and it’s not actually leading them anywhere.”
Reports that the recession is leading more people to enrol in tertiary study, putting strain on institutions, are of concern to the Minister. Under the current funding model, tertiary institutions are given funding based on what they predict enrolments will be, but the recession has skewed those predictions.
“We don’t want unbridled growth, but in a managed way. So it is uppermost in our mind—it is quite clear the trend is there—more people are either attending or staying at university and polytechs,” Tolley says. “It is a two-edged sword, because at the time of recession you want to make sure that we are keeping people in skills training. Coming out of the recession, we’re going to need a skilled workforce, and so we want to make sure we don’t lose those—but that has a cost to it.”
Normally, institutions are penalised if they enrol more students than they expected. Tolley says the Government will look at either lifting the cap, which has financial implications and would need to be approved in the Budget, or allowing institutions to escape penalisation.