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Critic feature interview with Steven Joyce

A new Minister, but will students ReJoyce?

A self-made millionaire and the key architect behind National’s rise to power has been named the Government’s top man for the tertiary sector. In his first interview with student media since taking over from Anne Tolley earlier this year, Steven Joyce talks to Critic’s Caitlyn O’Fallon about his road to politics and his plans for, well, all of us.

Like many students, Steven Joyce’s university career didn’t go according to plan. He had dreams of becoming a vet but didn’t make the cut for second year. Instead, he successfully completed a Zoology degree, but it was his education on the sidelines of his course that really set him up for the future.

While at Massey University, Joyce got involved with the student radio station – and it was that that led to his actual career. While at Radio Massey, he and some mates formulated a plan to break into commercial radio. They weren’t interested in Radio New Zealand, where “you had to go to announcer’s school and then you got posted to Greymouth or something,” so they set up one of the first private FM radio stations in New Plymouth.

This effort by a few uni students grew into a multi-million dollar business with 22 radio stations and over 650 staff. “We basically went from university to running our own radio station” says Joyce. “It was very cool fun, very cool.”

In 2001, the cool fun ended when CanWest bought their company, RadioWorks, on the share market. Joyce was suddenly six million dollars richer, and not sure what to do. He got a gym membership, started running again … and joined the National Party. “That was something I’d always been interested in but never had any time to do anything about,” says Joyce.

Joyce decided not to stand in the 2002 elections, although he points out that it made no difference anyway, as National got a cringe-worthily low 21 percent of the vote. “After the election some of the people I’d met from the party thought it was such a bad result, they asked me if I would do a review of the National Party and reorganise it.” And so he did, and went on to run the election campaign for Don Brash in 2005.

Of course, this was the infamous ‘Hollow Men’ election. Joyce was one of the party members accused of dodgy dealing with the Exclusive Brethren – something he has always denied. Nicky Hager, the author of The Hollow Men, claims Joyce met with the Brethren during the run-up to the election and helped organise for them to volunteer on the campaign. Joyce quit the party immediately after this election, although he claims this was always his plan.

Joyce didn’t return to politics until John Key became National leader and asked him back, first for consultancy work, then to run the 2008 campaign, and finally to stand in the election himself.

Since entering Parliament as a list MP, Joyce has held the roles of Minister of Transport and Minister for Communications and Information Technology. But the reason we’re interested in him is, of course, that he recently replaced Anne Tolley as Minister for Tertiary Education.

The Prime Minister has explained the reduction of Tolley’s workload as giving her the maximum opportunity to concentrate on the implementation of national standards in schools. The Opposition and the media have both charged that Tolley herself was simply not up to standard.

Whatever the reason for his appointment, Joyce seems to be relishing the role. In his first three weeks, he says, “I’ve been learning a huge amount; I’m just really looking forward to getting into it.”

There is no doubt that he is busy. Like any Cabinet Minister his schedule is jam-packed. This interview had to be rebooked after a scheduling snafu – instead of the planned face-to-face meeting in the Beehive, it ended up being a two-part phone conversation as he travelled back to the capital from the West Coast where he was visiting his first polytech.

As well as stuff like visiting polytechs, Joyce has a lot of hard work ahead of him. He says that the key things he needs to do are make sure that taxpayers’ money is well spent, and to make sure that students get “real value” out of their tertiary education. He emphasises the value of such an education – “the reason that taxpayers and the government support students is that there’s a real public benefit out of their education” – but also points out that a huge amount of money is spent on students, and that that amount is growing.

One of the main problems Joyce sees is low completion rates in part-time courses. “It’s not all just about enrolments” he says. “I think we’re putting a lot of extra money in the system but the number of graduates, of universities for example, hasn’t gone up that much.”

Joyce was unwilling to offer any solutions to the problem at this point, or for several other issues, stressing that three weeks is not long enough for him to be able to give all the answers.

He certainly didn’t rule out the possibility of changing the fee maxima policy, the policy that stops our fees from increasing by more than five percent each year. He says it’s too early for him to comment: “I haven’t formed any ideas on what’s appropriate in terms of the way it’s being run currently.” Critics of the policy, brought in under Labour, say that it effectively guarantees that fees rise five percent every year. At the same time, however, changes could potentially have alarming consequences for the price of a university education.

In Critic’s interview with Joyce, he was also reserved on the matter of changes to the student loan policy. He did confirm several times that he has absolutely no intention of reintroducing interest on student loans. He’s been more talkative since, however, with reports saying that he is looking into tightening the scheme and stating that some people are making poor use of their loans. Joyce reportedly admitted that backing the interest-free scheme was a political ploy in the 2008 election. Prime Minister John Key has also told Parliament that the Government is working to “ensure that taxpayers’ generosity is not being exploited.”

This is clearly an issue for Joyce, as he pointed out to Critic that the policy is expensive, as “48 cents for every dollar of loan is written off effectively by the Government.” However, he does encourage people to take advantage of the fruits on offer. “We actually have one of the most generous taxpayer-supported schemes in the OECD, so people should make the most of it, [and] make sure they get the tertiary education they need in their lives.”

One concern for the Government is how those student loans are being used. Joyce says they want to be sure that “people are using it properly to advance their academic careers.” He does say that on the whole he believes people don’t abuse the system.

Roger Douglas’s Voluntary Student Membership (VSM) bill is another issue Joyce isn’t willing to say anything solid about. The bill is before select committee at the moment, and in its current form would make membership of all student associations like OUSA voluntary. At the moment, student associations have two options. They may require all students at the university to be a member, like OUSA does, with exceptions able to be made for those with ideological objections. Or they may be voluntary, and people can choose whether to join and pay the levy. Student associations can change from one to the other by petitioning for a referendum and voting.

Joyce is unwilling to comment on the bill yet. “We’ve all heard the arguments before but I’d like to hear what the select committee have to say before I’ll offer an opinion.”

Perhaps mindful of his involvement with student associations while he was studying, Joyce says that there are “benefits that students get from their associations which they may or may not immediately recognise, like the student media for example.”

Of course, Joyce is alluding to one of the strongest arguments against the bill: a lot of us aren’t aware of how much the students’ associations do, so if membership were voluntary we might miss out on important benefits. No doubt you will hear this argument and similar ones repeated ad nauseam in these very pages by our own student politicians as the March 31 deadline for submissions to the select committee approaches. For those student politicians it will heartening to know that the Minister is, at least, entertaining their argument.

Critic will have extensive coverage of the VSM debate as it progresses. Next week, we’ll look at the potential impact the proposed legislation could have on OUSA.

www.critic.co.nz

ENDS

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