All of us have things we believe are purely public goods that should receive government support. For example, few people outside the Act Party would argue that basic health care or environmental conservation is a private good that individuals should choose to fund, depending on their own self-interest. Then there are things most of us view as private goods; tickets to the opera or rugby, iPods, fluffy covers for your steering wheel. You won’t hear many people making eloquent arguments that these things bring public benefit and therefore should be publicly funded.
And then there are a whole lot of goods and services that, for many people, sit somewhere in the middle. Tertiary education is one of those things. Everyone acknowledges that a tertiary education will, in many cases, give people significant private benefits in terms of income across their lifetime and other markers of well-being.
But, we also know that tertiary education provides many essential public benefits. As the government’s Tertiary Education Strategy 2010-2015 notes, higher education levels have been linked to better general well-being, better health, and greater social mobility. All of these mean less drain on the health system and thus less taxpayers’ money spent on health care. What’s more, people within tertiary qualifications are more involved in the community and are more likely to vote and stand for public office. Tertiary education promotes civic engagement, debate, democracy, and cultural expression.
And of course, many of the private benefits of tertiary education don’t really stack up as fairly as they should. Someone who follows their dream to become a hairdresser and invests tens of thousands of dollars of student loans probably will not to get commensurate economic returns over their lifetime, despite his or her efforts.
Likewise, a medical student that spends invests $100,000 learning to be a doctor, then then takes their skills to run a heavily self-subsidised and underfunded clinic in Otara, is unlikely to see much private economic benefit in return for his or her private commitment of time and money.
It has been a while since the tertiary education community clearly articulated why public tertiary education is important, and what we need to do, as a community, to protect and hopefully even enhance it.
Public tertiary education exposes us to new ideas, new people and new opportunities. Public education gives substance to the Kiwi dream of equality and freedom. It helps bring social justice to our communities. It gives our economy real, sustainable economic strength. Through research and learning it expands our horizons and connects our past to our future, and connects New Zealanders with the rest of the world.
Currently our tertiary education system in New Zealand does all these things and more. Those of us who work in tertiary education institutions are committed to our students and to our communities. On-the-whole this commitment means that our tertiary education system does a great job, but it faces significant pressures to maintain high standards. Private providers do try to undercut our big providers on quality and price. More importantly public providers are constantly tempted to act as though they are private companies – competing with each other for students and funding, spending millions advertising for students when they don’t have space to take them, rationalising and cutting courses that don’t give a good economic return, and increasing the workload of staff by refusing to hire staff as student populations grow.
I agree with the government that public tertiary education should provide opportunities for all New Zealanders. What we need now is for the government to ensure its actions make this vision real.
In a number of areas the actions of government have failed to support the vision of providing opportunities for all. Public tertiary education should encourage people into study. Yet the foundation courses funding that helped many people into tertiary education are being closed down because they fail to achieve a good enough economic return.
We also should ensure we have a system which supports all communities in every region of New Zealand. And yet the current government, in recent years, has cut more than $50 million out of our polytechnics – the same regional institutions that, if given the change, could be helping keep regions healthy and people in jobs through the recession .
Public tertiary education should enable community involvement in the governance of institutions. And yet, the government has removed all the staff and student representatives from polytechnic councils and made sure that ministerial appointees will always have a majority on those councils. Our public education system is something we all own and should govern together.
Public education should support all research, not just that in which businesses see short-term benefit. And yet the government’s new tertiary education strategy shifts the funding focus only towards that research which businesses see as valuable. The research that public tertiary institutions do opens new doors and challenges us to see the world from new perspectives. While research to support business and the economy is important it cannot be the only type of research we support publicly. In times of economic and political uncertainty, we need New Zealanders to be well armed to debate the direction they want for the nation and to think creatively to solve problems. Research into these problems is non-commercial and may event affect some individual businesses and business activities negatively.
If we are going to give ordinary New Zealanders a fair chance to learn skills and attain the knowledge they need, we need to make sure that tertiary education in all our regions is accessible, affordable, and supportive. That means lower fees, more investment in our public tertiary education institutions, transparent, equitable admission and selection criteria and processes, and supportive grants that help families to get by while individuals take the chance to study.
We need a unified public tertiary education system that cooperates to help ordinary people get the education they need, rather than institutions competing to make a profit off students and their families. Public tertiary education should be about learning, not running a business.
We believe there is a social good to public education. Education should not respond to market signals alone but also to the needs of communities, their many cultures and visions of the good life, and of course our environment. Good public tertiary education helps individuals reach their dreams and goals, but more importantly it helps New Zealand become a better place economically, socially, and culturally.
National President Te Tumu Whakarae
Tertiary Education Union