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Cullen - Address to University of Waikato

27 April 2006 Speech Notes

Embargoed until: Thursday 27 April 2006 at 10.00am

Hon Michael Cullen Keynote Address to University of Waikato School of Education 2006 Graduation Ceremony

Founders’ Theatre, 221 Tristram St, Hamilton

Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, Dean, council members, staff, guests and graduands.

It is a great pleasure to be here today, particularly as this is the first university graduation I have attended since becoming the Minister for Tertiary Education late last year.

Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a large team of people to bring one graduate to the completion of their chosen course of study. At ceremonies such as this, we celebrate the effort of individuals in gaining mastery over a body of specialised knowledge and in acquiring skills and competencies that are valued in the community and in the labour market.

However, I believe we should also acknowledge those who stand behind every graduate. There are the teachers who guided that student through their course of study, the advisors and administrators who provided logistical support, and the whanau and friends who provided encouragement and practical help.

All of you graduands probably have a number of key individuals who you would like to bring onto the stage with you this morning, to share this moment.

However, I suspect none of you would include in that list Douglas Seymour and Anthony Rogers. And yet your presence here and your achievement owes much to these two who fifty years ago had the original vision for a university in the Waikato.

It was due to their clarity of thought, their persuasive abilities and their sheer hard work, that this institution came into being, and grew from a handful of staff and a few temporary buildings surrounded by farmland to a university which now has two campuses, employs hundreds of lecturers and support staff, and teaches thousands of students.

Waikato University was, in its first conception, an exercise in innovation, in moving beyond accepted boundaries. One needs to remember that in the 1960s New Zealand universities were in large part involved in importing a body of learning and a model of academic teaching that was honed in the great university tradition of the United Kingdom.

At that time, it was thought that what New Zealand needed were mini Oxfords and Cambridges. As with many of our other social institutions at the time, such as the courts, universities drew their inspiration from the motherland, along with many of their teaching staff.

Waikato was the first institution which sought to create an indigenous tradition of higher learning. It was the first university to engage in a strong partnership with the tangata whenua and to be gifted the title ‘wananga’ by the local iwi.

It was, and it remains, an engaged model of tertiary education, serving the people of the Waikato through high quality teaching and research. As such it has played an important role over the years in providing leadership within the university sector and beyond, particularly in areas such as multi-disciplinary study and more latterly in creating new ways of networking with other tertiary institutions.

My purpose in reminding you of this history is to point out that, as graduates of Waikato University’s School of Education, you will become bearers of that tradition as you move on into what I trust will be valuable and satisfying careers.

I want to suggest three important lessons that you may want to bear in mind as you begin the next phase in your careers. All of them can be drawn in some way from the history of the institution from which you are graduating today.

The first is that most boundaries exist only in people’s minds; very few are real boundaries.

As my wife, who is a primary school teacher, frequently reminds me, there is nowhere quite as multi-disciplinary as a primary school classroom. Versatility is one of the first qualities that a teacher must have. While employers and politicians (myself included) often speak of the need for a more skilled workforce, we recognise that the skills required today differ markedly from those required ten years ago, and that in ten years time that skill mix will change again.

What this means is that we need people who have good general competencies and are able to apply themselves to a variety of different jobs over a working life, requiring different skill sets. To do this requires a ‘whole person’ approach to the essential competencies: not just logic and reasoning, and fine and gross motor skills, but also emotional and social competencies, and a strong sense of personal worth and identity.

All of this is laid down during childhood, and that makes the profession of teaching into a fundamental investment in the future of the nation. You will be charged with developing the basic infrastructure of our society.

Of course, education is not just about creating workers. It is also about creating citizens and members of healthy communities. As teachers you have both the challenge and the privilege of engaging with some of our most important social issues at their earliest inception. Many people (teachers included) express concerns about the degree to which they are required to find answers to complex social and family problems, and in so doing to compensate for the perceived failures of parents.

It is hard to see that tension going away in the foreseeable future. However, just as teachers are at the frontline in terms of addressing the emerging problems of each new cohort of children, so too they are among the first to identify the seeds of their greatness. That is a sober thought; but also, I hope, a very satisfying prospect.

The second lesson is that where you finish is more important than where you start.

One of the reasons we need to train so many teachers in this country is that our teachers are so valuable on the international market and that so many teachers move on to other professions. I am not one of those who lament the tendency amongst young New Zealanders to work overseas for a period. It is undoubtedly the case that experience in a variety of countries and settings makes for better quality teaching.

I do, of course, fervently hope that those of you who decide to take your skills offshore will return. The government has recently tilted the playing field in that direction with our student loans policy which removes interest from loans for those graduates living in New Zealand.

As for the issue of teachers leaving the profession altogether, it demonstrates that the skills you have acquired can be valuable in a variety of spheres. As I mentioned before, I am married to a primary school teacher, although when I first met her she was the Member of Parliament for East Cape.

I think the main thing she got out of her political career was me, although her teaching ability was invaluable in dealing with constituents and caucus colleagues.

I trust you will feel free to explore your options. Nevertheless, it is the goal of my government to ensure that teaching continues to be a satisfying and rewarding career choice.

The third important lesson is that you cannot escape your roots; and nor should you want to. Technically speaking, when one is a graduate of a university one becomes a member of that community of scholars who are committed to the advancement of knowledge generally and to the health of the institution.

I trust that you will take that responsibility seriously. Last month I announced a set of reform proposals for the tertiary sector. One area in which I am looking for changes is the quality assurance and monitoring of the system. We need institutions to demonstrate more clearly how they are meeting the needs of students and stakeholders, so that we can have a more open dialogue around how to ensure taxpayer money is spent on high priority areas in a way that is getting results for everyone with a stake in tertiary education, including business, industry and communities on a regional and national basis.

You as students can have an important role to play, by keeping in touch with your faculty here at Waikato and seeking out opportunities to provide feedback and ask challenging questions.

The experience of graduates during the early years of their careers can be an invaluable source of insight for university teachers into what works and what does not. I would encourage you, now that you are officially certified as the intellectual peers of your teachers, to continue the interchange of ideas that occurred in the lecture hall.

Certainly, the government is firmly committed to the notion that tertiary institutions need to mine the experience of their graduates by creating feedback loops that enable them, in turn, to offer better advice to new students, assisting them to make better choices, and leading to better outcomes.

Looking around this hall today, I see many reasons to be confident in the future of Waikato University as an institution and as a community of scholarly thought and reflection based in the Waikato and focused on the needs and aspirations of this region.

Today is a celebration of the immense potential that tertiary education has to realise the dreams of individuals and to create a more skilled, productive and innovative society.

I would like to offer my personal congratulations to you all, and wish you well in applying your new qualifications to the task of building successful careers.


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