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Cullen: Address to Rotary Club of Port Nicholson

Cullen: Address to Rotary Club of Port Nicholson

Duxton Hotel, Wakefield St, Wellington

It is a pleasure to be here this morning, celebrating the success of Zoe Haws and Dennis Kahui. In addition to my own congratulations as Tertiary Education Minister I would like to pass on those of the Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Helen Clark. She is a great supporter of this event, but sadly could not be here for this year’s awards ceremony.

As Minister for Tertiary Education, I look forward to events like this, as too often the focus is on the difficulties facing the tertiary education system while the many positive things happening get overlooked.

There can also be a tendency to focus on the problems and issues of the tertiary system as a whole, at the risk of overlooking the individual stories of struggle, endeavour and success that are at the heart of what goes on in our tertiary institutions.

Tertiary study is an individual effort. While it is enormously valuable to have a supportive peer group and to have capable teachers, tertiary study is about individuals challenging themselves, gaining mastery of a discipline, learning new skills, exploring and expanding their natural abilities and challenging themselves to do things they never thought they could.

The goal of higher education has always been to produce people who combine advanced skills with an ability to reflect critically on the world around them, seek out answers, adapt to new knowledge, solve problems, and provide leadership in their chosen professions.

Since its inception in 1990, the Goal Setter Award has highlighted outstanding tertiary students, and in particular those who have overcome significant obstacles and approached their studies, not as a purely academic exercise, but as a stepping-stone to making a positive contribution to their community. This year’s awards have a particular emphasis on innovation, and on students who show an aptitude for pushing boundaries.

Zoe and Denis fit the bill admirably. Neither of them has had a stereotypical tertiary career; and one expects that nothing they do in future will be stereotypical either. Today we congratulate them for their hard work, imagination, and persistence with their individual vision.

I believe our tertiary system needs to enable such people to thrive. To do that we need to make sure that the structure and focus of tertiary study provides opportunities for students to chart their own path.

That depends to a large degree on the attitude of individual faculties and staff, and today’s awards are also a vote of confidence in Zoe and Dennis’s teachers and supervisors at Victoria and Massey Universities.

As you will be aware, the government has just completed an important round of consultation on proposals to reform aspects of the tertiary system. Two elements of those reforms are, I believe, relevant to today’s awards.

First, we want to replace a funding system based primarily on quantity with one that puts quality centre stage. Zoe and Dennis have been much more than ‘bums on seats’ during their studies, and the tragedy of the EFTS system is that it focuses on how many enrolments an institution has gained, rather than whether courses have been completed successfully, and what the outcomes have been for students. Our aim is to introduce a funding system that recognises and rewards quality, and that means not just meeting international benchmarks but meeting the expectations of students and employers.

The second important aspect of the reforms is to encourage better interaction amongst tertiary institutions, so that they form a network of provision, and also to encourage interaction between tertiary institutions and industries. Splendid isolation helps nobody.

I am convinced that tertiary providers who are engaged with their communities and with employers, who focus their research and their teaching on the issues that are relevant to our society and our economy, ultimately provide a better quality of education. By and large, New Zealand institutions share this vision, and I have been very impressed with the ways in which institutions have developed innovative ways of linking their teacher and research with the world around them. However, we need to get better at this if we are to compete in a global economy where knowledge is the most important economic asset.

How we best achieve these goals is a matter we still need to work through, although I do expect to make some further more detailed announcements within the next few months. I am confident that over the next few years we can develop a tertiary education system in New Zealand that is the envy of other countries and that continues to foster the careers of people like Zoe and Dennis.

So can I again offer my congratulations to Zoe and Dennis, and to the family, friends, tutors and mentors that have provided them with inspiration and support. Please join me in wishing Zoe and Dennis every success in the future.

Thank you.

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