Which Partys Policies will improve access to tertiary education in New Zealand ?

  • Wyatt Creech


As all of you here probably know, its almost 5 months since I became Minister of Education. For me, its been a case of intense tertiary education! - 5 challenging months of concentrated learning and practical action. Im now well-schooled in the intricacies of tertiary fees, student loans, EFTs, curriculum reform, teacher supply, and polytech politics.

Education, obviously, is a very large and demanding portfolio, encompassing everything from early childhood, through primary and secondary schooling, to tertiary education and industry-based training. We must be fair to all parts of the sector. That requires a lot of balancing.

No-one becomes Minister of Education hoping to be popular.

The other day I saw one of those automatic screen savers that said God put me on earth to accomplish a certain number of things. Right now Im so far behind I will never die. I sometimes feel that this portfolio is like that. There are a number of things I want to achieve, many of them in the tertiary sector, as I believe that education is the most important public policy investment we can make to secure the future.

Over the last few years there have been huge increases in across-the-board funding. In the coming year we will spend about six billion dollars on education. While recognising the importance of education, we also have to be reasoned and responsible, and not simply react to the areas of loudest noise. Confrontation politics may seem exciting, but at the end of the day they achieve little real progress. Its usually a case of more heat than light.

Im here today to cast some light . Your question is Which Partys policies will improve access to tertiary education in New Zealand? My answer is going to be National. No surprise. But its not mere party politics. Let me explain why and how I think our Government is improving access to tertiary education for all New Zealanders.

Under National, since 1990 the number of students participating in tertiary education has significantly increased - it is up by 50%. To be precise, the total number of tertiary students has increased from 141,456 in 1990 to 212,068 in 1995.

There has been a very big increase too in the numbers of students coming from minority groups. And we intend to increase the number of government-funded places in tertiary education by a further 10,000 between 1996 and 1999.

I hope youve absorbed all those numbers - Ill be asking questions later!

Some parties have claimed that that first year student numbers are now dropping. They are wrong. Student numbers this year have not fallen. They have in fact risen overall by 2 percent in spite of the fact that last year saw the smallest number of school leavers that we have seen for 4 years.

The so-called sharp decline headlined by others was arrived at by comparing last years July figures with April of this year. Not only did they leave out the fact that there were fewer seventh formers overall to move on to tertiary education; they ignored changes of definition of first-year students at some institutions that made a mockery of the figures.

Whether or not we should charge fees for tertiary education is one of the areas of debate.

When I was at University we used to protest loudly about the levels of Government assistance, and I am sure that every generation of tertiary students will continue to do so. Its part of student life - and as such Id hate to see it go, even though I am now the target!

I want to spend a bit of time discussing fees and student loans.

First the question of whether we should charge fees. I want to read you a quote.

I belive the State should remain the predominant funder of education, but there are also private benefits and that means that the individual student has to make a contribution

That was said in 1988 by Phil Goff, then Labours Minister of Education.

National has accepted the Todd Report recommendation that there is some private benefit in a tertiary education.

At the margins this is easy to see - a lawyer earning a huge salary could not have done it without a tertiary qualification - a law degree. The law degree is his or her meal ticket. The same applies to accountants, engineers, doctors, dentists, and many others.

The Todd Group research showed that those with degrees generally do enjoy a significantly higher lifetime earning capacity compared to those without degrees. We know that graduates generally expect their years of study and consequent qualifications to be recognised in salary packages.

In the past the policy has been quite unfair. To be in a trade, you had to do an apprenticeship. That was the tradespersons meal ticket. But if you did a law degree enabling you to earn a far better income generally, you had your training pretty well at the expense of the taxpayer, even though most taxpayers never had a show of earning that sort of money.

Therefore the argument is that there is both public and private benefit in tertiary education - public through improved outcomes for New Zealand, and private in enhanced earning ability.

When we considered this option we accepted Todd Group Option A, under which three quarters of the tuition costs of New Zealand students will be met by taxpayers generally, and the remaining quarter by the individual student. There is work currently being done on the cost categories, but the Ministry of Education advised me, for an answer to a Parliamentary Question on 16 July, that the estimate of the current level of taxpayer contribution to the cost of tuition over the nation as a whole is 78%. By deduction the level of student contribution is 22%.

Obviously if we accept a fee structure for tertiary, we want to be sure that lack of money at the time is not a barrier to students attending. To enable students to meet their share of tuition costs, plus textbooks and living expenses, we therefore introduced the Student Loan Scheme.

Student loans are not subject to either income or asset tests. They mean that tertiary education is now available to everybody who wants it, as you dont have to produce cash up front. The loans are not paid back until borrowers are in full-time employment. Low income earners dont have to make repayments. Any interest not paid is written off.

As of September 1995, 117, 332 students have taken on loans, and the average total owed by each is $5,889.

The threshold for loan repayment is being increased in line with the minimum wage. As I have said before, we are looking at the scheme to make sure all parameters are fair and reasonable.

Despite what they may say, I do not believe that any of the other parties will move away from this approach - unless they have a secret agenda to introduce some other unpalatable elements like limiting entry to courses.

Another factor is student allowances. For years there was criticism of the low levels of participation in tertiary education by the sons and daughters of low-income families. Student allowances are in place to attract people from that background into the tertiary sector; they are targeted to students from lower income families.

This year the allowances have enabled almost 50,000 students from low-income families to take up further education.

Another element that impacts on costs to students is the efficiency of the institution they study at. Accountability and cost-effectiveness is an on-going issue. All tertiary institutions are autonomous and independent under the 1989 Education Act. The Government spends over $1.1 billion dollars on tuition subsidies, and Polytechnics and Universities set their own fees. Students have much to gain from cost-efficient management - as Lincoln and Waikato students have recently demonstrated!

National supports quality management for tertiary institutions. We have recently set up the Tertiary Reference Group as a forum for consultation on a number of reforms.

Diversity and choice are a strong argument for Nationals policies. Now students have access to a huge range of courses. The tertiary sector is expanding rapidly to meet growth in student numbers - you can now choose to attend a Technical Institute, University, a private training establishment or specialist provider to gain the education and training you want.

To close, let me run through a few further achievements of the past 6 years.

Minority group participation in tertiary education has increased significantly. The number of Maori students is up by 158% , and Pacific Island peoples by 119% since 1990.

The Graduate Employment survey of 1995 showed that the number of graduates in New Zealand has doubled since 1986. More of them are finding jobs, and they are earning more.

Here at AIT access for all has increased. Student numbers have risen from 8,890 in July 1991 to 10,085 in July 1995. The provisional figure to April this year is 10,383. Your proportions of Maori and Pacific Islands students have grown - and you may have noticed that women now make up 57 and a half percent of all your students!

National is committed to improved, quality education for all New Zealanders. Our policies have, and will continue to, increase access to tertiary education. In this case, the figures do tell the story.

I am happy to answer your questions.