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Speech Jim Anderton - NZVCC administrators’ conf.

Hon Jim Anderton

Minister of Agriculture, Minister for Biosecurity
Minister of Fisheries, Minister of Forestry
Associate Minister of Health
Associate Minister for Tertiary Education

Progressive Leader

18 November 2007

NZVCC administrators’ conference, Lincoln

I would like to start off by welcoming our Australian visitors here as part of the in the Vice-Chancellors’ Committee Administrators’ Programme.

I am sure that there will be mutual benefits from sharing ideas, and insights over the week ahead.

It’s a pleasure to be here today to acknowledge your role in universities and to talk to you about how the government sees the changing role of universities in the new tertiary reforms.

I want to set out the background to those reforms with a somewhat personal story about a letter I received nearly ten years ago from a broken-hearted couple who lived in Hawke's Bay.

They had lost their son - their only son.

At the time, when I read their letter, it seemed to me that in many ways it summarised what we were doing wrong in New Zealand at the time, and the ugly consequences for families and individuals.

The couple’s son had been an ordinary kid who finished school and went out confidently to get qualifications towards a career.

He borrowed for his student loan and finished his course with average marks but then found he couldn't get a job. The skills he had learned were not the skills employers were looking for.

So he took on even more debt and enrolled in another course, and studied hard and earned a fresh qualification.

By now his student debt was a huge weight around his neck when he went out looking for work again. Once again he found the doors slamming shut.

There was no work for him. The qualifications he had were not matched to the needs of employers. And his debt was growing every day.

In the end this young man lost hope and self-esteem - and took his own life.

This tragic story, as his parents knew when they wrote to me, is only partly about him. It is much more about us.

It is a story about what happens when you smash the economy of regional communities, when there aren't jobs for young people, when you dump huge debts around their necks and when you take away their chances.

The story in that letter to me brought home as hard as it could that we must create jobs for young men and women - real opportunities with a chance for young people to maximise their talents and make a contribution to their community and society.

To create those opportunities, we have to strengthen our economy. We need to earn our way in the world by selling more products and services to the world that depend on our unique creativity and talent.

And our tertiary education system is crucial to transforming our economy.

That’s what the tertiary education reforms are about: Ensuring tertiary education is high quality and relevant to New Zealand’s social and economic needs.

The government invests $3 billion a year on tertiary education and training.

We need to get good value for that spending.

In the university sector, our tertiary education system must produce graduates with the skills New Zealand is going to need in the twenty-first century. It must produce research that contributes to innovation.

Universities also have a fundamentally diverse role integral to building New Zealand as a distinctive place with out own body of knowledge. Research and education that informs and forms the character of our country and our people is part of the economic transformation of New Zealand.

The story I started out with impressed on me that our ‘bums on seats’ education system was not delivering for far too many people who needed it to do so.

Students were not getting the qualifications they needed.

As we strengthened the regions and began to create more jobs, employers began to tell me more and more that they couldn’t get the skills they needed.

And when I went to visit tertiary institutions and asked them where the problem was, they all told me the system was set up to be short term, and to get as many people through the door as quickly as possible.

To be fair, most of them were trying to do their best within the system they had - but the system itself wasn’t supporting them very well.

Let me take a moment here, as Minister of Agriculture, to outline why these issues are crucial to us.Our primary industries - for which I’m responsible - are crucial to New Zealand. They have been since the first primary exports were loaded onto ships at the dawn of our modern age.

That sector has always relied on innovation, too. When William Saltau Davidson organised the first shipment of frozen meat to London aboard the Dunedin, 125 years ago, it set up a century of prosperity. Before that, there was a time when people used to say, ‘you will never export dairy or meat from New Zealand.’

The same sorts of people today tell us primary industries are fading, that there is no high value role for primary industries, and that New Zealand can’t compete with high technology economies.

Those voices are just as wrong today as they were in Davidson’s day.

In fact, productivity in the primary sector has been rising faster than in the economy as a whole for over a decade.

And it has transformed our agricultural industries into extremely sophisticated high-technology industries. A lamb chop might not look very high tech, but it is likely today to include as much science as a cellphone.

There is a critical relevance in all of this to our tertiary sector: Our primary industries are incorporating more science because they have to if they’re going to survive and prosper. And as a country we need them to do better; two thirds of our export earnings come from the primary sector. In other words, if they don’t stay ahead, through science, research and ideas, New Zealand will fall behind. Far behind.

And at the same time we are trying to broaden and deepen our export base so that we can create more industries that reproduce the success of our agricultural sector.

In short, we need to do more than hope the sun shines, the rain falls, and the grass grows. We need to develop the highest levels of innovation and productivity improvements.

Our tertiary sector is the hotbed and the driving force of those improvements.

So the government has set out to reform tertiary education to make the sector more relevant and more responsive to our economic and social needs.

We want greater financial certainty – both for the government and for universities and other providers.

Grater certainty will come through the “Investing in a Plan” process, which your universities have been working through with the Tertiary Education Commission this year.

We want greater public and government confidence in the tertiary education sector.

We want greater quality – a stronger focus on quality teaching standards, excellence and robust systems used by providers to assure quality.

The quality assurance mechanisms are very relevant to you as administrators. The integrity of the work you do around data collection and utilisation is going to be the life-blood of more aware, responsive universities.

Future investment decisions will be based on measured achievements and success. Decisions will be strongly evidence-based.

The quality of your administration work and your systems will help universities deliver - and show they are delivering continuous improvement.

While the new reforms are implemented there will be a lot of change going on around you.

Universities will need to make decisions about how they can best position themselves for the future, and for their particular role in the overall tertiary education system. That is, they will need to work out what they should be offering and how it fits with needs.

The government expects universities to differentiate more and become more complementary.

The government will also be looking to see that universities increase the achievement of under-represented groups, including Maori and Pacific Islanders.

Universities will be a major part of delivering more of the innovation New Zealand needs to be a successful developed economy in the twenty-first century. If universities aren’t successful at that, New Zealand won’t and can’t be successful.

So it is too risky for New Zealand to have institutions and sectors growing in a piecemeal or arbitrary way.

We need to focus more on the overall strength of the sector and on who can offer what, and how, and where.

That will mean that the government and community stakeholders will have a greater say, while we respect academic autonomy and freedom.

The whole system is becoming more strategic.

The central tool will be the Investment Plans for each institution.

The TEC Board is assessing those plans this month and decisions will be announced in mid-December.

The plans are built around an assessment of what New Zealand needs, rather than being driven by short-term demand for certain courses. We will look at where New Zealand is going, rather than counting the number of enrolments in last year’s courses.

Funding paths will be available for as much as three years, which will give greater certainty.

We are already seeing a more flexible and strategic approach from tertiary institutions.

We are beginning to see them place greater focus on meeting the needs of everyone who has a stake, including students, industry and their local communities.

I believe the environment in which university administrators will be operating is exciting. I acknowledge any process of change takes some adjusting. But I have confidence you will do it well and to the highest standards.

I am encouraged in that by programmes such as this, hosted by the New Zealand Vice-Chancellors’ Committee.

With its focus on preparing you for systemic, cross-sector issues, and not just the particular concerns of your institutions, there is a healthy big picture perspective being developed.

I wish you well over the coming days and I hope your important role in the success of students and your institutions is supported in what you do here.

Thank you and best wishes.


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