The Slippery Slope

Tertiary education in New Zealand is haemorrhaging some of its best and brightest teachers, administrators and providers.

If you aren’t familiar with the story so far, here’s the Cliff Notes version.

In New Zealand, Labour were voted into power in the late 90’s. The Powers That Be — hereafter abbreviated TPTB — decided they didn’t like private tertiary establishments (PTEs), and, in an attempt for their public tertiary establishments (namely Polytechnics) to catch up, Labour (now Government) slapped a moratorium on course developments on PTEs.

It didn’t work.

TPTB then decided maybe funding caps would help. PTEs would have caps; public institutions would not.

It didn’t work.

TPTB introduced TEC, the Tertiary Education Commission, an amalgamation of three organisations with some tertiary Ministry of Education units, to oversee funding in the tertiary education sector. TEC was, and still is, very disorganised, never meet their own deadlines despite demanding tertiary providers meet theirs, give conflicting or vague advice when asked about a vague statement in their “guidelines”, and so on.

They didn’t work. Three years on, a few restructures later, and what probably amounts to hundreds of millions of wasted taxpayer dollars, and TEC is still not “right”, with another restructuring at a price of millions occurring mid-2007.

TPTB tried to change the funding system, dropping subsidies 9.5% for PTEs and placing “Fee Maxima” — a fee ceiling based on type of course any provider in New Zealand could charge — on all providers. Of course, public institutions had the right to apply to go above this ceiling, and, from year to year, a lot of them do and TEC accepts their applications as being valid.

Fee maxima — an extremely vague and “one size fits all” approach — is not working.

In an attempt to get rid of more PTEs — and despite TPTB stating the contrary, they are still attempting to reduce or get rid of PTEs — TEC subjected them to an exercise called “Assessment of Strategic Relevance”, a paper-based exercise coming out of the blue, wasting yet more taxpayer and student dollars, unfairly targeting the smaller PTEs. Every provider had to complete 1 ASR for every course they offered at every site. If a course was found of low relevance, it lost funding (or that was the theory).

It didn’t work. The exercise found PTEs were more responsive to needs, were more “strategically relevant” than their public counterparts; not the desired outcome TPTB probably wanted. (As an aside, how many PTEs had to shut because of losing funding but amazingly, public providers received extra funding to help them become “more relevant” instead of getting their funding revoked.)

TPTB pulled a surprise measure in May 2006’s Budget: “If your course doesn’t get subsidy, it won’t get Student Loans or Allowances.”

It didn’t work. Providers affected jumped up and down to be given a fair chance, and, reluctantly, TPTB allowed them to apply for funding so they could offer Student Loans and Allowances.

TPTB are changing the funding system yet again; their previous changes (as I have been saying all along they wouldn’t) haven’t worked. Some tertiary providers — public and private — are still abusing the old system and are not playing “fair”.

Will it work? Probably not. It is a radical departure from how providers have been previously funded, and, while the bulk, three-year funding cycle might help providers gain more long-term stability (their words, not ours). But, as my dear readers can see, there hasn’t been stability in tertiary education for a long time. How, as Noel and I asked at a recent meeting, can we be assured of stability in such a volatile era for tertiary education in New Zealand?

But back to haemorrhaging. Tertiary education is losing valuable resources. Not only money, but also people. Academics. Administrators. People with the know-how to make New Zealand a “knowledge economy” like TPTB spout on and on about.

TPTB spend heaps of money on bureaucracy: inefficient organisations like TEC, for example; however, they are reducing the money going to providers, having a flow-on effect on students. (Side note: TPTB are not paying providers but paying providers for tuition for students, so, theoretically, it is the students’ money, not the provider’s.)

TPTB make the assumption that by shutting down PTEs (through corralling them into a corner for the slaughter funding-wise) that those educators and administrators will then seek out jobs at public institutions. But that assumption is very flawed.

in our industry alone, out of the original six tertiary providers — all private — 1 (ours) is owned by its original owners. 2 still have some of their original owners. The other 3 saw the writing on the wall and sold up and moved on. And, for your information, they did not flock into public tertiary education. Other newer players have come and gone as well, either shutting down or selling up and moving on. All that knowledge — hundreds of years worth collectively — is gone from our “knowledge economy”. All that “wealth”, all gone.

Our friend, Lorna, ran the Elite school in Auckland. She left; TPTB pushed so hard that it was affecting her physical and mental health, not to mention her home life. Another academic with many years’ knowledge and experience: gone.

And NZQA periodically updates all providers in a newsletter about how many PTEs are registered in New Zealand. This figure continues to fall. Originally about 900, there are now 720-odd at latest count. If we figure each provider employed at least 2 people, this means at least 360 people lost their jobs as a result.

At the most recent meeting I spoke about before, I met up with someone Noel and I had met at a TEC meeting a few years back. She asked how we were getting on with TEC; I said we were holding in there but were thinking of suing them for wrong or negligent advice. Asking her about her provider, she scoffed. “Screw this all. I sold up. The new owners have me on a two year contract to transition to their way and then I’m out of here.” Yet another academic lost.

And that story is being repeated throughout New Zealand.

My burning questions to TPTB — and since they don’t listen, now I open them to the general public — are:

How do we create a “knowledge economy” when we’re quickly becoming “knowledge bankrupt”?

Will this supposedly-stabilising shift in the way tertiary providers are funded work, or is it yet another poorly thought-out plan, like usual?

Why aren’t tertiary providers, like ours, who consistently and constantly prove we are amongst the best and play by the rules all the time given some slack and allowed to grow and have our compliance reduced so we can raise our already high quality even higher? (In other words, why are TPTB trying to make us just mediocre?)

And, when some of us have been right again and again and again in telling TPTB that some hare-brained plan isn’t going to work, when are they finally going to listen to those who are in the trenches and are always right?

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