Public education is the cornerstone of a good country and a buoyant economy. And New Zealanders have long enjoyed the benefits that come to them individually, to their families, their communities, their country, and the economy from having access to quality public education. But all this now seems under attack from a small group of Treasury officials (all of whom I am sure had access to public tertiary education) who seem determined to limit the educational opportunities open to ordinary New Zealanders.
The Treasury has just released its briefing to the incoming Government claiming, “building greater economic resilience and lifting economic growth is critical for increasing incomes and improving the wider living standards of New Zealanders.” Treasury makes this assertion fully acknowledging economic uncertainty facing not only the New Zealand economy but the world economy. Treasury’s proposed road map for stability and for ‘improving the wider living standards of New Zealanders’ is missing a crucial element –investment in high quality public tertiary education. In fact, it attacks the very engine-room that is crucial to economic growth and stability.
It has some plans for tertiary education, none of which are about investing in educational opportunities. Treasury proposes reintroducing interest on student loans so that families will save for their children’s education; increasing class-room sizes; and targeting tertiary education funding to ensure that there are more “younger tertiary students and higher-level qualifications”.
Let me give you a glimpse into what the future may look like if the National-led government takes up Treasury’s proposals on education. Imagine an ordinary, hard-working 30-something father who loses his job when the local freezing works close, and who must retrain if he is to find employment in his home town.
Once upon a time, a local polytechnic offering a six-month long diploma would have helped this 30-something father back into employment. However, Treasury says that New Zealand’s investment in education must focus on degree programmes, so there is no longer a diploma on offer in his hometown at a polytechnic. The only option available is a higher-level qualification that will take three years to finish and will leave him with a $16,731 student loan on which he will now be paying interest.
Knowing how crucial retraining is for his future and the economic security of his family, this father makes inquiries about studying at the university, an hour from his hometown (the commute is worth it, if he can get back into employment). However, the university, following Treasury directives, has a limited entry policy and is focussing on taking 18 to 25 year olds into degree programmes, and our unemployed father does not fit the profile of a ‘good student’. He has never been given the chance to prove his worth as a student, but he is by Treasury’s reckoning a ‘poor investment’. As a result, he is unable to retrain, unable to find a job in his hometown, unable to contribute financially to his family or the economy.
In what society, or economy, is this the vision we have for New Zealanders? In what type of society is education limited to the few who can afford to get there, leaving the rest of us on the scrap heap? Treasury’s vision of a targeted education system where it picks the winners and denies opportunities to all others will do just that.
We can’t let anyone take away from all New Zealanders the opportunity to study for a diploma or a degree, a certificate or a PhD, if they have the ability to do so. Age should not be a barrier to learning; neither should your parent’s income prohibit you from the joys of a transformative educational experience.
Quality public tertiary education is quite rightly, there for all New Zealanders, so let’s keep it that way.
What’s more, quality public tertiary education will help New Zealand weather the global financial crisis. Data from the OECD released just last week demonstrates that countries that invested in tertiary education coped with the global financial crisis better than those that did not.
Investing in tertiary education helps protect people and countries from economic troubles.
Treasury and this National-led Government need to look again at the international evidence. Perhaps then they will realise that investing in New Zealanders’ educational opportunities will help each of us and our families as well as making sure we have a society and economy that flourishes and provides for all.