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Maharey: Defining Small Screen & Lecture Theatre

Steve Maharey Speech: Defining our place via the small screen and in the lecture theatre: the politics of tertiary education and broadcasting reform

Address to the Stout Research Centre and Institute of Policy Studies Educating the Nation, and The Media 3rd annual Trans-Tasman conference. Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University of Wellington.


It’s a pleasure to be invited to address this gathering today.

This is a time when people from both sides of the Tasman are asserting their nationhood on the World Cup Rugby field.

The contest is a vehicle for sibling rivalry between our two countries. While the competition is fierce it is also an indicator of trans-Tasman community.

But rugby is not our only shared passion and today I want to talk about two of mine – New Zealand's ambitious reforms in tertiary education and broadcasting that are enabling us to represent and promote who we are as a nation.

Of course there are many ties that bind Australia and New Zealand.

Much about our social origins, cultural and political inheritances, law and institutions can be sourced to imperial Britain.

Britain has bequeathed a tradition of public education and public broadcasting.

But New Zealand is anchored in the South Pacific.

The All Blacks, for example, benefit from a range of Pacific faces. International journalists at the World Cup struggle with this. They still see Samoan New Zealanders as primarily Samoan and Fijian New Zealanders as primarily Fijian.

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To be a New Zealander in the 21st century is to be someone who owns this place as home.

We don't live in the past. This country's strength is in recognising who we are now and preparing for what we want to become.

Like the All Blacks, our institutions are taking on a character that responds to our distinctive, diverse needs. Industry development, diplomatic initiatives, tourism strategies, and labour market intervention all have a cultural dimension.

An end to ideology – or so we thought

During the 1990s the relentless focus on economics pushed cultural considerations off the political and public policy agenda.

Remember that back then politicians in this country seriously thought we could transform New Zealand overnight from a commodity producing agricultural nation into a South Seas imitation of the New York Stock Exchange, an antipodean Silicon Valley – or several other flights of fancy. None of these master plans took any account of our location, our people, their aptitudes, or our existing strengths – but what they did do was tell New Zealanders that to succeed we needed to be some other kind of people.

We had no need for institutions that celebrated and built this nation – like our public broadcasters and tertiary institutions – because the best way to move from where we were to global success was to buy our culture and education off-the-self to ensure we homogenised ourselves into an acceptable international product.

Public television was prepared for sale and plans were drawn up to outsource public radio to the private sector. The most open tertiary education marketplace in the world was introduced to ensure public and private providers competed equally for students – and it succeeded in forcing the nation’s universities and polytechnics to homogenise their course offerings and aggressively compete for the same group of students. Ask anyone who has tried to find a builder, plumber or an electrician recently whether they think that was a clever strategy.

The election of the Labour-led government saw a reorienting of the political debate away from these market excesses. So it’s interesting that within the last week the debate has flared again with the election of Don Brash as the new leader of the National Party.

Dr Brash is in favour of selling Television New Zealand, saying he sees no particular reason for keeping it in government ownership. The future of Radio New Zealand would clearly also be up in the air again as well.

In education Dr Brash has regularly stated his preference for privatisation. He is on record as saying he doesn’t care who owns schools. There is no reason to believe he feels any differently about tertiary education institutions.

Whatever Dr Brash says the government feels confident that reasserting a nation building role for our public broadcasting and tertiary education organisations is now a widely accepted and important role. New Zealanders are now very interested in how we can use public institutions like Television New Zealand, Radio New Zealand and our tertiary education system to build the nation for this new century.

We are creating systems and strategies that reflect our national identity and reinforce our confidence as a nation. I’d like to use the remainder of my time to discuss education and broadcasting as cases in point.

The nation building role of tertiary education

In opposition at the end of the 1990s I was responsible for the development of Labour’s tertiary education policy. We titled it ‘Nation Building: Tertiary Education and the Knowledge Society’ and argued in it that just as the first Labour government consciously pursued a ‘nation building’ strategy, New Zealand again needed to refocus the system to equip our nation and our people for the realities of being a New Zealander in the 21st century.

Incidentally our thinking was significantly influenced by the Australian academic, Simon Marginson, who has also written about the ‘nation building’ role higher education plays in the development of national identity and prosperity.

So what kind of “nation” do we want our education system to build?

The government’s vision for a New Zealand knowledge society is clear. We want New Zealand to be: a birthplace of world-changing people and ideas a land where diversity is valued and reflected in our national identity a great place to live, learn, work and do business and a place where people invest in the future.

Tertiary education is key to achieving these goals.

Over the last four years in government we have put in place the building blocks of the new tertiary education system. The most important of these is the Tertiary Education Strategy, which seeks to build national consensus about how we should respond to New Zealand’s knowledge and skills needs. For the first time in our history we have a strategy for our whole tertiary education system, a strategy developed through extensive consultation that reflects the goals of New Zealanders for our nation.

Tertiary education organisations are now required to state in their charter what contribution they see themselves making to further the aims of the strategy and the Tertiary Education Commission distributes funding and has new regulatory tools to assist them to do so.

Think globally, act locally

Globalisation of the world's economies has created a fast changing and complex world. The technologies for gaining, sharing and applying knowledge are changing rapidly. Research, science and technology are increasingly pivotal in creating knowledge to solve business, social and environmental problems.

As a result, knowledge is growing at exceptional rates. The “knowledge society” is far more than a quick cliché – it’s an imperative. We have to create more knowledge in this country, and we have to apply that knowledge within our own boundaries to all facets of our lives – whether business, our families, or our lives in our communities.

The development of a prosperous and confident knowledge society in New Zealand must build on our nation’s uniqueness and its strengths.

Increasing globalisation actually challenges the tertiary education system to be more local. In a globalised world we need to have a comparative advantage, but this does not mean beating Harvard at Harvard’s game. It means making the world realise that there is no point in trying to beat New Zealand’s tertiary system in areas where New Zealand excels, because we concentrate on our strengths and invest in areas of importance.

We must do it this way, because the alternative is to rely on globalised e-learning initiatives that may offer individual benefits but not serve to further build the nation.

We must also embrace the promise of tertiary education as both a social and economic development tool.

New Zealand is becoming an increasingly diverse nation, with Maori and Pasifika populations increasing faster than any other groups and immigration adding to the rich mix of cultures within New Zealand. Tertiary education has a key role in ensuring that everyone has the competencies necessary for a satisfying and productive life.

The education system needs to respond to the distinct expectations and aspirations of Maori communities and individuals. This is not simply a matter of ensuring that Maori get the same educational opportunities as Europeans. It is often a matter of developing new programmes and providers.

Increasingly, Pacific Island people are also demanding more from education, both in terms of opportunity and in terms of offerings that reflect their own experiences.

The education system is critical to meeting the hopes and dreams of new migrants as well. It can be the key to their successful settlement in New Zealand.

We also have a different kind of economy now. We are no longer an offshore farm for Britain. We have needed to, and still need to, build a new economy to meet different global circumstances. This means adding value to goods and services while developing the systems that allow us to constantly innovate.

Literacy and numeracy are now essential for all New Zealanders.

We need as a society and individuals to be able to respond to environmental challenges not faced by previous generations.

The kind of knowledge society we are seeking to build here in New Zealand must be deeply rooted in our unique characteristics as a people, and our economic and social development needs.

Why a focus on relevance is so important

Excellence, relevance and access are the watchwords of the reformed tertiary education system.

Improving the quality of teaching and research and making both available to greater numbers of New Zealanders are obvious goals. But stressing the importance of ‘relevance has been viewed by some with a certain amount of anxiety. There is a fear that it masks a relentlessly utilitarian and economistic viewpoint. I just want to briefly stress that this is not the case.

The Prime Minister said at launch of the Tertiary Education Commission in February:

“I stand strongly for the role of education in producing well-rounded, highly literate, well informed New Zealanders who are aware of the world around us, of history, of cultural heritage, and of the great ideas and philosophies that have driven mankind.

“Education can never be reduced to a mere economic output. It has the potential to transform the lives of individuals and whole communities.

“Its focus must be broad and empowering, not narrow and confining".

This is a fundamental creed for my party and one which we have no intention of sacrificing. Relevance doesn’t just mean economic relevance and, far from being academically detrimental, it can be very academically beneficial.

A good case in point is the government’s drive to boost the nation’s research effort through the creation of Centres of Research Excellence (CoREs). Tertiary education organisations were asked to identify those disciplines in which they already had a world-class reputation that could be further developed. Seven centres have now been established. Most are collaborative ventures involving researchers from several institutions and Crown Research Institutes.

Amongst the seven is Nga Pae o te Maramatanga, the National Institute of Research Excellence for Maori Development and Advancement, based at the University of Auckland.

Because the issues facing Maori are broad ranging, this Centre uses its multi-disciplinary strength to tackle them at a broad level. It assembles for the first time a critical mass of excellent Maori researchers from across disciplines and institutions to produce innovations that achieve Maori development and advancement. The goal is the rapid achievement of full Maori participation in the economy and society.

The research this CoRE is engaged in is vital stuff for the future of the nation, but no one could argue that it is solely economically focused. Similarly the introduction of the Performance-based Research Fund will ensure that research quality is rewarded, rather than particular disciplines identified for special funding or attention.

Developing our identity through broadcasting

Broadcasting is another area in which we can reflect our national identity and reinforce our confidence in our distinctive self-image.

For some years from the late 1980s through the 1990s, government in New Zealand moved away from any real appreciation of broadcasting as a cultural and educative force.

In its embracing of market-driven policies, government distanced itself from what I believe is its responsibility to ensure that New Zealanders have access to a genuinely indigenous broadcasting system. Certain measures were in place to support New Zealand content in the broadcasting media, but they were vulnerable aberrations within an essentially commercial context.

I have to say that this caused me considerable concern. As an opposition MP I did what I could to promote public broadcasting in this country, including introducing the New Zealand Public Radio Charter Bill to Parliament. Its eventual success was very satisfying.

More satisfying still is the fact that since 2000 there has been a fundamental shift in the way government in New Zealand thinks about broadcasting, and how it sees its own role in broadcasting.

This government, like others around the world, has reclaimed the right and the obligation to involve itself meaningfully in the broadcasting sector.

The essence of this government's objectives in regulating broadcast content is to ensure the promotion of national culture and identity, to promote participatory democracy, and to encourage the availability of diverse sources of information.

This is consistent with international recognition that public broadcasting is driven by the principles of universality of access, diversity of content, political independence and programme quality.

In Australia public broadcasting has given both of us Kath and Kim. The show is confidently, outrageously Australian. Where else would we hear the lines "you great hunk of spunk" or "hand me my Coogie cardigan with the batwing sleeves"?

Television New Zealand has a rich history of introducing viewers to comic kiwi characters like Fred Dagg and Lynn of Tawa. Presently the comedian Mike King out-rates programmes on other channels in his weekly chat show poking fun at our idiosyncrasies.

A mixed economy of broadcasting

We have done much to ensure that we have in place a mixed broadcasting economy in which both public and private interests have a role to play.

This system recognises the importance of New Zealand access to the best programming that the world has to offer, and the even greater importance of New Zealand content for New Zealanders.

Significant changes have been made within the broadcasting sector. Key among these are the drawing up of a set of objectives to drive the development of broadcasting policy and the establishment of the Television New Zealand Charter.

In charging our publicly-owned television broadcaster with the dual remit of implementing its public service charter while maintaining commercial viability we have created an arrangement to meet our particular needs as a nation.

We are forging a new approach that combines social and commercial objectives for public service television.

In a country with the tax-base the size of ours, the government cannot hope to make sufficient funding available to fully support a public television service. While the government provides extra money to support the Charter, TVNZ nevertheless relies on commercial revenue from advertising to pay for much of its local content.

Among the objectives driving the development of public broadcasting policy are: ensuring all New Zealanders have reasonable and regular access to broadcasting representing the uniqueness and diversity of New Zealand life, and recognising that the histories and stories of whänau, hapü and iwi are integral to any description of that life.

The Charter says that among other things TVNZ will provide shared experiences that contribute to a sense of citizenship and national identity, and feature programming that serves the varied interests and needs and age groups within New Zealand society.

The Maori Television Service is being established as a public service broadcaster with specific obligations to ensure Maori perspectives, heritage, culture and language are presented on the small screen.

The Service is intended to play a vital role in Maori economic, social and cultural development.

But Maori television will also play a major role in the development of New Zealand as a whole. Put simply, Maori television is for all New Zealanders.

The future

I want to set a steady course for broadcasting development in the future. I want to establish a durable framework in which issues of our evolving national identity have a central place and our engagement with our near neighbours and the rest of the world is supported.

Let me, in the interests of excellence in public broadcasting, cut to a short commercial break at this point. Next month a number of government agencies will be hosting a conference on public broadcasting, to inform the debate on its role and future. It will be held in Wellington on 20 and 21 November and I very much hope that many of you here today will be able to attend. You can find more details on


In conclusion, we can speak of three clear dimensions to both tertiary and broadcasting reforms: a commitment to developing quality a determination to foster excellence and a recognition that New Zealanders care deeply about their own institutions, whether that is Television New Zealand or the country's universities. They expect these institutions to contribute to the development of our nation in a challenging new century.

Globalisation is raising issues about how we retain our identity as New Zealanders while being part of the world economy.

Concepts of globalisation lump together economic changes, cultural processes and technological advances. How do we respond as a nation? How do we retain our identity? These are important questions for New Zealand, for the education system and for our public broadcasting systems.

Our well-being as a nation, both internally and internationally, depends on us focusing our energies on what makes us unique as a nation and how we want to present and represent ourselves to the world.

I believe that, as people move more freely between nations, it is more important than ever that New Zealand is imbued with a unique sense of place and New Zealanders with a secure identity.

Thank you again for the opportunity to join such an interesting and worthwhile gathering. I wish you all the best for a very successful and enjoyable conference.

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