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Hodgson: NZUSA Conference

Hon Pete Hodgson
Minister for Tertiary Education

3 October 2008
Embargoed till 12:15pm
New Zealand University Students Association Conference

Hello everybody. For those of you who don’t live in Dunedin, I do and so I get to say welcome.

This is, as they say, my patch. I’ve been the MP here for 18 years so far, and I’ve seen some remarkable changes in tertiary education over that time.

I want to trace those changes over the next little while, and draw some lessons.

I also want to spend a little time looking at the future, informed however by lessons of the past.

Before all that, let me state the obvious. It is that access to affordable tertiary education and training, of all forms, is a cornerstone of a developed society. Education is opportunity. It helps realise the potential of each of us as individuals. Education is the wellspring of tolerance. It is how informed social dialogue can occur. It drives productivity. It drives innovation. It releases the power of curiosity and of cynicism.

Access to affordable tertiary education and training, of all forms is a cornerstone of a developed society.

So how are going? Is access increasing and is that access more affordable?

The answer to both questions is yes. The answer to both questions is also that there is more to do.

Society has engaged, hugely, in tertiary education and training in recent times. About 190,000 people will have engaged with industry training this calendar year. At work, at a polytech, in short or longer courses. Fifteen years ago that was figure was less than 30,000. 30,000 to 190,000. Within those figures are a particular form of training called apprenticeships. Nine years ago we didn’t have apprenticeships. They had all but withered on the vine. Today over 17,000 folk are in an apprenticeship or have completed one in recent years.

Today, here in Dunedin, 1000 people are undertaking doctoral study. The figures are increasing quickly, in part driven by the fact that anyone can study for a doctorate at the domestic rate of tuition. This is brain gain, because a proportion will stay here when they have finished.

One by one historic bastions to access are crumbling. Women have long since broken and entered the health services. They are now doing the same to the various engineering disciplines and are even gaining a toehold in surveying. The tertiary education gender gap has all but evaporated.

Not so Maori and Pacific access rates. There the job is not done. The improvements are rewarding enough, and real, and permanent. But they are not sufficient. There are simply too many decile 1 or 2 secondary schools in this country where too few people go on to tertiary education. Every graph is pointing in the right direction, but we have not yet travelled along those graphs far enough.

We must do better. All our public institutions are now required in their plan to tell the Tertiary Education Commission how they will improve access rates. This single, rather simple, requirement is driving some very interesting initiatives and programmes, lubricated to a degree by funding.

Earlier this year the Carter Holt Harvey headquarters came on the market in Manukau City and Cabinet decided to put a capital injection on to AUT’s balance sheet so they could buy it. The first courses, in midwifery and pasifika pre-school teacher training, begin in February. My prediction is that putting a University Campus in the middle of the largest concentration of Polynesian students in the world will have a positive effect on participation rates. This is especially because the linkages with the existing providers such as MIT and Te Wananga O Aotearoa will be strong. I insist on it.

Which brings me to Wananga, a type of institution we will only ever find in New Zealand.

There are three. Their roots go back a long way. They began with the Maori renaissance and in a way the fact that they exist is because our existing institutions were unable to embrace that renaissance fast enough or deeply enough. Wananga have all struggled, all grown, then grown explosively, then taken the Crown to the Waitangi Tribunal, and won, and have nearly all settled, consolidated, and become a permanent part of the landscape. Wananga matter.

They also challenge, and the next challenge they present is how this nation, built on a western tradition of knowledge creation and diffusion can better embrace a Polynesian tradition as well. The performance based research fund is probably where this challenge will be played out. As with many other things in this nation, both cultures will shift and seek to somewhat accommodate the other, and both cultures will do so over time.

Access for other people also improves, be they various Asian ethnicities, or refugee groups, those with differing disabilities, those with specific learning disabilities, those who must learn from a distance, or learn part time, or who seek to complete advanced study offshore.

Every year access improves. And every year under this government it will improve further. As a government we are wedded, non-negotiably, to a high skilled future. We know that education is the bedrock of our social and economic future and we will continue to invest.

As we do the emphasis on quality will, inexorably, increase as well. Here our approach is much less these days about driving out low quality education. We have already made good progress on that. Instead we pick another lens and say “quality might be good, but why might good be good enough?”
In many of our institutions, including the one we are in now, quality is world class. But even then, quality never stands still. Otago has, for example just completely rewritten its medical curriculum and the manner in which it is taught. Second year medical students declare it a success. Third year students complain it arrived a year late.

In Polytechs the quest for further quality improvement is informed by a thing called benchmarking whereby each of the 20 is able to compare themselves to the other 19, and to some offshore polytechs. The interrogation of these data has only just begun, but the result will be a lift in both quality and in cost-effectiveness.

And then there is the quality of teaching, and the advent of an important new, small, institution called Ako Aotearoa. Ever since the PBRF got underway, observers have called for an equivalent emphasis on teaching. That emphasis is now arriving. We are learning how to identify, promote, measure at least somewhat, and celebrate good teaching.

Moreover our best teachers are now invited on to a newly formed academy so that their skills might be shared with others.

But now to the issue of affordability.

Here history is not very kind to some politicians because lies were told, and those lies altered the landscape of affordability and meant that an entire cohort of New Zealanders, now roughly in their 30s, got a raw deal.

What happened of course was that in the lead up to the 1990 election National promised to scrap the Lange-Palmer government’s tuition fees of $1250. The promise was resolute, and strongly asserted. Pledges were signed up and down the land by National spokesperson of the time Dr Lockwood Smith. He would resign, he pledged, if he did not scrap the Labour government’s $1250 fee.

The fee was not scrapped. It was doubled; in most cases more than doubled. And Lockwood Smith didn’t resign. Eighteen years later he is still there. Along with Bill English or Nick Smith or Maurice Williamson and others of lesser note all who voted for this resolute and strongly asserted promise to be broken.

It then just got worse. The fees rose, year by year, until they reached astonishing levels. At the dental school, a few blocks from here, they reached $21,000 a year.

The funding made available to Universities was squeezed, and in some years actually fell, so Universities responded by putting the impost on students. Students blamed Universities, and protests became normal. On this campus the registry building was invaded and students stayed there day after day in a demonstration of their dismay and distress.

I know. I was in the middle of it. There are more students in my electorate than in any other. My office is next to the Cook. Like I said this is my patch. And back then it was hard work. Students would approach me, every week, in trouble. Back then students wanted so little. They wanted to have a lower interest rate while studying. They wanted to be relieved of the burden of proving that they had no contact with their estranged parent when calculations regarding their access to an allowance were being made. The state was taking some pretty ugly decisions back then.

Needless to say no Cabinet Minister would go on campus in those years and when on rare occasion they did, they faced anger.

What has happened since is that in nine of the past nine budgets the impost has lightened, sometimes a little bit and sometimes a lot. In every case National has voted against.

Through those nine years, the NZUSA has advised or lobbied the government, and that advice or lobbying has changed. First it was to remove interest on loans while studying, then to introduce controls on fees, then this or that indexation such as the indexation of allowances and more recently the living cost component, then to remove interest altogether, and of course the campaign over recent years to adopt a universal approach to student allowances.

Each year we have responded. Nearly every year the NZUSA has said that is good, but not good enough, each year National has opposed us. In every year the overall affordability of tertiary education has improved.

You and we have fought, and fight, over statistics and trends and international comparisons. From time to time the Vice Chancellors jump in, opening a third front. The end result is confusing for some of the public.

Of all the statistics, I focus on one. It is the pay-back time for students who stay in New Zealand after graduation. I focus on it because it is the only statistic that embraces all the influences. The size of fees, the availability of allowances and scholarships, the impact of the interest free policy, the availability of employment post-graduation and the prevailing wage or salary. It is the one statistic that measures the impact of government policy at the level of an individual student.

The median has dropped from 8 years for someone who left in 1999 to 4 years for someone who left in 2005. Some will be longer, others shorter. But now, thanks especially to the interest free policy, half of all student loans are repaid four years after leaving tertiary education.

Let’s recall that that policy of zero interest on student loans was bitterly, trenchantly opposed in Parliament. National leader John Key said it was a reckless policy and that he would oppose it with every bone in his body.

We were told students would rush to get the cheap money and then invest it, presumably with the likes of Merrill Lynch.

That hasn’t happened. Just as well, one way or another. What has happened is that students have found that the post-graduation impost on their lives has halved.

That’s good. But it is not yet good enough. We are committed to making progress on the latest front, that of moving towards, but not directly to, a universal student allowance.

You’ve heard those words endlessly, because I say them often. You disagree with them because you want universality now, not progressively. So as always, a difference exists between us.

Note how the debate is framed. Your assertion is that our improvements are good but not good enough. But only ten years ago the frame was the opposite. Then the question was why must things continue to deteriorate. Then it was, 'Why are your cuts so harsh?' Today it is, 'Why aren’t your improvements greater?'

Progress towards universality has been steady over the past five budgets. Parental thresholds have been lifted by more than 50% and the age at which those thresholds cease to apply is to be lowered next year to 24. Just over half of all students who would be eligible for a full allowance under universality will be receiving one from January.

Over the next three years we wish to make further progress just as we have in the past five.

More than that, we wish to maintain the gains that have already been made so that students don’t lose any ground, even to inflation. Hence just about everything that could be indexed has been indexed. We will continue to promote a range of scholarships, increasing those that are delivering or winding out any that don’t. We are committed, rather obviously, to the policies we have introduced, the fee course cost maxima policy, the zero interest student loans policy, and the tertiary education strategy itself.

You and I can argue about the speed of travel but we are not arguing about the direction of travel.

Which brings me to a rather obvious conclusion. Students will do better under a Labour-led government than a National-led one. Better no matter whether its access, affordability or quality.

In a few days, Treasury will open the books and we can all peer inside to see how much money the government has. A few days later, National will announce big tax cuts. Labour will not.

And then we will have an election. One of us will form a government. If it were to be National then those tax cuts would have to be paid for. There are only two sources of money. One approach would be to borrow offshore to pay for tax cuts which would be reckless beyond words.

The other is to slice and trim expenditure. Government has only three big pots of expenditure. They are health, education and social welfare, including superannuation. So hospitals will face cuts, or beneficiaries and superannuitants will, or you guys will.

In 1990, the last time National came to office they embarked on all three. Benefits and super were cut, you had to pay to go to hospital, and Lockwood Smith lied to students.

Question is, have we learnt the lessons of history?


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