The Minister of Everything

TALKING POLITICS BY GORDON CAMPBELL
Last updated 10:34 26/11/2012

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OPINION: Every administration has its fixer, the operative who never seems to sleep and whose hand is visible in almost every facet of the government's operations.

In the Bolger government of the 1990s, it was Bill Birch.

In the Clark government it was Michael Cullen and if you went back to the Muldoon era, you'd find it was Birch, again.

To date, the Key government has not seen fit to recall Birch from retirement because it has Steven Joyce, who does a very good impression of being the Minister of Everything.

In fact, as the Minister for Job Creation, Tertiary Learning, Science Research, Skills Training and Industry Development, Joyce has the economy's entire range of inputs and outputs is in his hands.

And he didn't earn that position by being indecisive.

Last week, Mr Decisive could be observed publicly venting his annoyance about the apparent lack of response - from universities and students alike - to his plans to transform tertiary institutions into an assembly line for the science and engineering graduates that the job market requires.

If need be, Joyce declared himself willing to step in and force change on the likes of Auckland University, and on the career choices its students are making.

"If they want us to be more directive, I'm more than willing," Joyce said. "I'm watching them really closely to make sure they do respond to what the market wants, and if they don't, I can go and tell them how many they should enrol for each department."

It's all very well to want more science and engineering graduates. Whether the Minister should be quite so hands on in dictating what students do with their lives, and what role universities should play in society, is quite another issue.

Joyce's plans for social engineering have been evident ever since this year's Budget put an extra $17 million into science courses and $42 million more into engineering, while it froze the funding in all other areas, including medicine.

Many post-graduates now entering their fourth year of study have found that Joyce has turned off the tap on their funding assistance.

That example underlines a basic problem with Joyce's approach.

As his critics have readily pointed out, politics may run in three-year cycles.

University course funding, however, runs in something closer to 20-year cycles, because courses, teachers and students cannot be turned on and off like a tap to meet the transient needs of the job market.

Eight years can elapse between someone starting a science course and becoming a productive skilled worker - an eternity in job market terms.

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For a Minister of Everything, Joyce appears to be bringing a remarkably narrow approach to the complex task of growing a Knowledge Economy.

Science and engineering outputs, after all, are not merely the outcome of course funding.

To constitute a rational career choice, such courses require maths, science and computing abilities that need to have been nurtured far earlier in the education cycle.

Instead of offering a crude funding incentive to induce 18-year-olds into engineering while starving their other university options, New Zealand may need to invest more funds and skilled teaching at primary and secondary school levels.

Surely, that isn't beyond the Minister of Everything to arrange.

- Kapiti Observer

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