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Cullen identifies the real tertiary ed issues

Minister identifies the real tertiary education issues

Tertiary Education Minister Dr Michael Cullen used his first major speech of the year to outline what he considers are the main issues facing tertiary education. Significantly, student financial support was not the key issue in his view. He told a NZ University Students’ Association Conference last week that financing tertiary study paled into insignificance compared with such issues as the capacity of the tertiary education system to attract and retain staff of international calibre. A further challenge was how well graduates were equipped to address key social challenges New Zealand faced. Critical to that challenge was the provision of a skilled professional workforce and the need to undertake ground-breaking research and create new businesses. Other issues were the standard of pedagogy and the international benchmarking of courses and qualifications to ensure on-going value in the global marketplace.

Dr Cullen told the student lobby that the interest-free student loan policy came with a “hefty price-tag” and that any further new money for the tertiary education system would be directed at the quality and relevance goals. He underlined this message with a detailed rundown on all the measures the Government had taken to increase student allowance eligibility. However, further action could be expected this year on the main outstanding issue for tertiary education – the funding system. Most academic staff were passionate about teaching and research and wanted to explore the links between their subject and the modern world. The problem arose when a poorly-designed funding system started to undermine those intentions. “We cannot ask tertiary education institutions to simply ignore the realities of the funding system; and yet there are no winners when the pursuit of student volumes puts the standard of teaching in jeopardy and hampers the ability of staff to remain current with the latest research in their subject areas.”

The minister did reassure his student audience that 2006 would be “good year” for both them and their tertiary education providers. In recent years the Labour-led government had shown that when additional resources were available, it was prepared to make major investments in tertiary education in terms of quality and access. Dr Cullen fleshed out more detail around the operation of the interest-free loan policy, stating that it was estimated to cost $218 million for the first year, rising to $269 million by the end of the decade. There would also be a one-off reduction in the value of the Crown’s student loan portfolio of around $1.5 billion. There would be a further impact of around $500 million due to the shift in accounting treatment from book to fair value. Government would also pursue the goal of reducing student debt by improving StudyLink’s financial information service.

Tertiary study was a major commitment of time and resources, requiring students to grapple with uncertainties about future earning steams and trends in the labour market. “Ideally what we want to achieve is a situation where graduates are comfortable with their level of debt given the value of the qualification they wish to attain and their future career prospects. What we want to avoid is graduates whose debt is entirely out of proportion with the benefits they receive from their tertiary study.”

On fees, Dr Cullen said the maxima scheme was brought in to protect students from sudden large increases. “By and large it has been successful in that objective. As with any attempt to impose a lid on price increases there have been issues around what constitutes an increase and which costs are covered by the regime. Some students have complained of additional costs being imposed by way of non-fee expenses. And some institutions have felt aggrieved that their attempts to hold down fees in the past have not been adequately recognised, in essence that they are being punished for their past restraint. I think these are teething problems rather than indicators of a flaw in the policy or its implementation.” However, the minister signalled his intention to keep the fee maxima policy under review. (NZVCC research shows that New Zealand university tuition fees on average are 40% cheaper than those in Australian universities.)

The new tertiary education strategy to be issued later this year would shift the focus on enrolment to a greater emphasis on teaching quality and on managing learning programmes towards better outcomes. “We need to examine course completion rates, and to minimise the number of students who embark on programmes of study but get lost in the system through insufficient foresight and planning, or through inflexible bureaucratic process which does not allow them to customise their study according to their needs and their family situations.”

Other items …

Professor Sharp outlines NZVCC priorities

While the tertiary education minister has given an indication of what he wants to achieve in 2006, NZVCC chair Professor Roy Sharp has stated that funding reform will be one of the Committee’s top priorities for the year. Universities would be interested in the detail of Dr Cullen’s thinking on the future of the tertiary education funding system. The minister and committee appeared to be in agreement that greater differentiation was required among the various types of tertiary education providers. However, as the current funding system is extremely complex the NZVCC wants to avoid a situation where change brings about unforeseen consequences adverse to universities – the frying pan into the fire situation.

The potential cost of funding system reform is linked to another NZVCC priority for 2006, a satisfactory outcome to the tripartite forum involving the Government, universities and combined university unions. The intention is to establish the case for increased resourcing of university salaries and funding. Government’s involvement in the forum indicates at least a commitment to the process and any progress could be reflected in this year’s Budget. Professor Sharp says Vice-Chancellors look forward to developments in this regard.

He will be further reassured by a letter from Dr Cullen, correcting a television news report on the minister’s speech to the NZUSA conference (see lead item). A statement in that report that students could not anticipate any more money for universities was entirely wrong, the letter said. While universities would not have any “inside running” on funding issues just because the finance minister was now the minister for tertiary education, that was quite different from suggesting there was no extra money available.

NZQA appointments announced

The appointments of Dr Karen Poutasi as NZ Qualifications Authority Chief Executive and Sue Suckling as NZQA board chair enlivened what was a quiet holiday period as far as tertiary education news was concerned. The long-awaited announcements of the new NZQA leadership team will help cement the authority’s role in a more focused and cohesive relationship with the other two agencies involved directly in tertiary education – the Ministry of Education and Tertiary Education Commission. Karen Sewell will remain as acting NZQA Chief Executive until Dr Poutasi takes over in May. Ms Suckling’s appointment is effective from April 1 when she steps in for acting NZQA board chair Catherine Gibson. The current Director-General of Health, Dr Poutasi is a medical graduate of Otago University and holds Otago and Harvard management qualifications. Ms Suckling, a member of the Takeovers Panel, is currently board chair of both Crown Research Institute NIWA and AgriQuality Ltd.

AGMARDT Doctoral Scholarships for 2006

The Agricultural and Marketing Research Development Trust has announced its doctoral scholarships for the current academic year. Three scholarships will be undertaken at Massey University with Carolyn Hedley developing new soil characterisation tools using proximal sensors and GPS, Jessica Koach working on bionanoparticles for delivery of biocontrol agents to possums and vaccines against bovine tuberculosis and Danitsja van der Linden studying the effects of ewe size and nutrition during pregnancy on fetal development, animal growth and reproductive performance. Other AGMARDT Doctoral Scholarships have gone to Sam Carrick, based at Lincoln, who will investigate the influence of sample volume on the measurement and modelling of soil water and solute transport, and Peter Tait who will assess the role of environmental externalities in Canterbury agriculture, also at Lincoln. Ross Johnson’s work at the University of Auckland involves the use and development of emerging homologous recombination techniques to improve apple aesthetics and health value.

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