New Zealand is not an intellectual or innovation powerhouse but the rapid decline of our entire tertiary education is a tragedy.
This week notices were sent out to thousands of polytech employees and many many hundred of them will shortly have no job. This was as a result of the Labour government merging all New Zealand’s polytechs into one.
In the previous weeks Otago University has had its Vice Chancellor resign, a massive financial deficit revealed, and a set of redundancies so huge that whole departments indeed most of the remaining Humanities sectors will be either reduced to a couple of people or just wiped out.
This affects some regional centres that have relied on this massive economic and social driver more than others.
In Dunedin the university and polytech employ directly or indirectly about 1 in every 5 people in a total of 130,000, and there is no industry to replace it. Previously the university itself had 19,000 students and contributed $1.79 billion to our economy. It was also the reason Dunedin was our most left-leaning city.
In fact they are all going through rapid decline.
Back in the day when I was going through degrees, universities were hothouses of intellectual innovation. They were where the left was reborn and renewed for every generation. Even in the humanities, people knew that while it wasn’t necessarily your first job that would reward you, it was your second job after that which would guide you upwards into the managerial ranks. There is no doubt those degrees account for my social and economic capacity now, and are my origin of political activism.
Back even further, in 1900 only 1 in 100 young people in the world would go to university. But since World War 2 in New Zealand this got towards one in five as recognition of the value of human capital for both economic and social progress became more widespread. What happened to that?
Universities ought to be the primary engines of our social and economic transformation. They used to be. The fact that reading that sentence seems unreal is a measure of how far down we hold tertiary education now.
Immigration is a factor in its decline. This term the government has had to erect many barriers to immigration. Some basic English-language course providers are beginning to bounce back.
The economy is another headwind. With unemployment consistently low and cost-of-living increases skyrocketing, and the government deeply supporting existing businesses to keep employing people irrespective of their sectors collapsing, there is little motivation to get into tertiary training and every motivation for a young person to get straight into an apprenticeship or indeed into any job that will support a family. There are always more warehouses to keep stacking, before the robots arrive, but you have to lock down a solid 40 hours a week on at least minimum wage.
It is not specific to Labour that universities are offering increasingly expensive, debt-financed credentials, but that reason sure isn’t going to help attract the shrinking pool of 18-year-olds that we now have.
Unlike United States universities, there are few sports scholarships and few major partnerships with our big sports disciplines. Also, there is only a small and narrow set of families who can provide institutional philanthropy that grows specialist research and dedicated Chairs. It’s just not a thing we do. Neither help in the attractiveness or financial stability of tertiary education.
I can’t yet see New Zealand evidence on high school leavers who prefer online degrees as they prefer online secondary school teaching, but if the trend in teaching is the same as the trend in retail, there will be a further burden on universities that have enormous amounts of money tied up in buildings, physical plant, and lecture theatres.
Higher education’s seven-decade run of unbroken good fortune – always more students, more money, more economic demand, more social prestige – is ending.
Like every other economic sector of New Zealand, we are at the bottom of the world. We remain intellectually competitive in some specific areas of study. But we have very little other than skiing, surfing and safety to attract people to fly and qualify here for several years.
With this scale and speed of tertiary education decline comes the further rapid corrosion of a remaining middle class who generate qualified children who get managerial jobs over $100k who can in turn afford to raise children and get a mortgage and start building their own business to employ people. That’s code for decline of a progressive-leaning middle class.
It is pretty clear that the combination of chronic long term under-funding, economic headwinds, demographic shrinkage, and massive accelerated restructuring, is turning into something that the entire tertiary sector has not seen in living memory. Only a few of our universities and polytech centres are in reality going to survive it.
The result of course is that we are dumber, making the same dumb stuff, too dumb to make smart policy, dumb enough not to argue or protest, and too dumb to care that we are indeed dumber.