Tertiary sector needs big shakeup

Last updated 08:26 25/11/2012

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OPINION: If there's one thing academics hate, it is being told what to do.

This is particularly true when the tellers are politicians or policy makers. Academics have always laboured under the conceit that they are the brightest people on the planet and that accords them primacy. They deeply resent that Western society has never recognised this truth.

In fact, it is a common lament that people with half their IQ (and one quarter of their qualifications) actually earn more money than they do, exert greater influence upon the political process and are the role models for their own kids.

By contrast, many New Zealanders regard academics as an out-of-touch elite, unable to appreciate that the economy is dependent upon doers, not teachers and talkers.

This divide has become acutely apparent as tertiary minister Stephen Joyce is attempting a relatively minor reform of the taxpayer funding made available to universities and polytechnics.

It is, sadly, very minor reform. The whole sector needs a bomb. Rather than stimulate the New Zealand economy, the tertiary sector is a self-absorbed anchor.

That there are so many universities, polytechnics, wananga and PTEs is a scandal. Such fragmentation is grossly inefficient and a direct contributor to New Zealand's skills shortages.

Up until now, central government has been prepared to let tertiary institutions do their own things.

It has applied an EFTS (equivalent full-time student) formula, but there's no sense to that either. Meanwhile, the referees - the Tertiary Education Commission and the NZ Qualifications Authority - wave on the wharf, like spectators farewelling the Titanic.

Joyce has succeeded in getting Auckland University to offer more engineering and technology places - over arts, creative arts and law places - by tagging taxpayer monies for that purpose.

Vice-chancellor Stuart McCutcheon froths and foams at the "interference". As if the money is his, and he can do what he likes with it.

Similarly, Joyce has cut funding to lazy polytechs who used foundation courses as cash cows. As a general rule, foundation courses fail because they are trying to arrest over a decade of schooling and learning failure, but many polytechs treated them as dollar fodder.

Instead of condemning Joyce, New Zealand should be encouraging the minister to go much further in reforming New Zealand's tertiary education. To amalgamate institutions, require them to offer more undergraduate courses through extra-mural and distance technology, and more closely align funding to the skills shortages that exist in our economy.

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We like to kid ourselves that New Zealand's universities are world class. They are not. In large part, that is because taxpayer funding is spread so thinly across the sector. We do almost everything mediocre as a consequence. The quest for excellence was ended long ago in the funding battle to attract scarce EFTS.

Similarly, we have been indulgent with the kids. We let them learn anything they choose, rather than anything that's actually useful. We repeat the lie that any qualification is better than none.

Tertiary "autonomy" is just another name for privilege.

It has become an indulgence that the economy can no longer afford. mlaws@radiolive.co.nz

- Sunday Star Times

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