When Ann Tolley took the ministerial scalpel to the adult and community education budget earlier this year she sought to minimise the fallout by belittling the courses involved.
Dismissing them as hobby courses "like twilight golf, radio singalong and pet homeopathy" no doubt seemed a good idea at the time. After all, it had worked for National when it was in opposition and pouring scorn on Labour's "bums-on-seats" tertiary funding model, ultimately dismantled by Michael Cullen.
This time round, however, it appears to have merely wound up opponents of the Government's decision to slice 80 per cent off the "night school" budget, suggesting a minister and administration out of touch with the community they are supposed to serve.
As a series of articles featured on the main news pages of The Nelson Mail this week shows, the courses are very important to many people right across our region. We've heard from tutors, expressing hurt at Ms Tolley's disparaging comments and concern at what the loss of income will mean. Some 15,000 tutorial jobs are in jeopardy throughout the country 100 of them in our region. So much for the Government's fine words around job creation. We've read of a leading accountancy firm's estimate last year that the adult and community education sector was worth up to $6.3 billion annually a return on investment of up to $72 for every dollar of funding. If only all government spending would stack up that well.
We've heard from people to whom adult education has been the catalyst for a lifelong commitment to learning while setting a great example to their children and others who have built worthwhile and satisfying careers on knowledge gained in night classes. And we've heard how much they can contribute to the health and well-being of individuals communities too, large and small, across the region.
Throughout the nationwide protest at the cuts, which has involved a march on Parliament, petitions, meetings with sector representatives and apparently thousands of letters sent to the minister's office, Ms Tolley has stayed resolute. In the Mail on Thursday following a visit to this region, and again in an opinion piece today, she has firmly reiterated that, especially in a time of recession, governments must prioritise. No argument there. She says in gaining $300 million more to a record $10.8 billion in this year's budget, education has had a major win on her watch, at a time of general government funding cuts. Great. Building a knowledge economy should be more than slogan-making regardless of who is in power, and there are obvious social and economic benefits in boosting literacy and numeracy rates.
However, in cutting so savagely into what is just 0.6 per cent of the education budget a comparative pittance Ms Tolley has upset and alienated many people across the country and looks quite happy to precipitate the dismantling of important community networks. Her comment, that many of the courses can still be offered at a relatively low cost to participants under user pays is revealing. The minister says pushing costs from, say, $5 to $15 a class is "hardly prohibitive". That might be the case on a ministerial salary, but there are plenty of people in this region who would disagree. Effectively, it means that many of the very people who would stand to gain the most from adult and community education will now be those least able to afford it. Have another look please, minister.
- The Nelson Mail