UCOL shakeup does no favours

GRANT MILLER
Last updated 12:00 12/11/2012

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OPINION: When the Manawatu Standard asked Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce if he took responsibility for the loss of up to 50 jobs at Palmerston North-based UCOL, the newspaper received a frank response.

The question came after the Government put a third of student achievement component (SAC) funding - about $40 million - up for tender, and UCOL was among education providers to miss out.

The result is that students in our province will have to travel to other centres for courses they could normally expect to do here.

Or these students will accept probably low-paying jobs here, instead of studying to acquire skills of more value to themselves and the economy. If these often under-skilled people can get work, that is.

The newspaper asked Mr Joyce to respond to a series of comments by Palmerston North MP Iain Lees-Galloway.

Among those comments were these:

"Here, tertiary education is under attack," Mr Lees-Galloway said.

"This is just another example of the provinces being disregarded by this Government.

"UCOL has suffered from the Government's determination that it is going to shift more tertiary education funding into the private sector. It is very bad news for everyone."

Mr Joyce's comments are printed here in full, subject to some minor editing.

"The Government has no determination or favouritism towards any type of institution, be it public or private," he said.

"We are only concerned with getting the best results for students from the taxpayer support we provide.

"Mr Lees-Galloway seems to be arguing that the Government should maintain its funding regardless of the outcomes and regardless of whether the institution is able to enrol the numbers of students it's funded for - that is, no accountability for public funding. We have left those times behind.

"It's important to note that UCOL has struggled to fill all its funded places in the last three years and has not met the 100 per cent funding target in any of these.

"UCOL is projecting to only just make 97 per cent of investment this year. On average it has been provided around $1m of funding a year for places that have been funded for which there were no enrolments. It would be unfair to taxpayers to ask them to keep funding courses if the ongoing demand isn't there.

"The Government has clearly signalled to the sector that funding is contingent on quality and performance and those that show they can effectively enrol and deliver for students will be prioritised for funding. Contestability of funding has been in place for a very long time. Those that lose funding always find it challenging. And those that gain funding have to deliver on the expectations that are being set for them. That occurs right across the tertiary sector.

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"I have been advised that UCOL will still be retaining more than $1.7m to deliver foundation education in 2013 versus around $3m in 2012. Final investment plans for each provider are yet to be finalised by the Tertiary Education Commission, and I expect UCOL may gain some funding in other areas - for example, in trades training or engineering."

Let's take this from the top.

I happen to agree with the minister that it doesn't matter if the institution is public or private.

And getting the best results for students from taxpayer dollars is an important concern for the Government to have.

But shelving a bunch of courses in Palmerston North because a provider somewhere else can do it cheaper or more efficiently is hardly the best thing that can happen for students here.

I'm not sure Mr Lees-Galloway is arguing for zero accountability for public funding - he's pointing out that regional polytechnics provide a service of value in the provinces.

Whatever the merits of contestable funding models - and the box-ticking the funding winners will hopefully be able to complete - some of our young people will have their prospects harmed by the limiting of their options.

The students affected by SAC funding decisions are often lacking in basic skills. Probably, they benefit most from teaching resources being deployed intensively.

It's hard to see how they will be best served by a Government keen to provide education on the cheap.

- Grant Miller is the Manawatu Standard's head of content and a politics junkie.

- Manawatu Standard

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