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Do low-value, for-profit tertiary providers really deserve ‘consistent treatment’ from the government?

As the debate around the value of private tertiary education providers sharpens with Labour’s immigration policy release, a new bill proposes substantial changes to the wider sector. Nicola Gaston has some serious reservations.

“Increase funding flexibility in the tertiary education system, strengthen the accountability, and monitoring of tertiary education organisations, and ensure consistent treatment of public and private tertiary education providers.”

On the face of it, the stated purpose of the Education (Tertiary Education and other matters) Amendment Bill, sounds good: our education system is one of the key responsibilities of any government, and something in which we all have an interest (and should get a say). Increased accountability – in so far as it protects the interests of students who already incur considerable debt for the education that society seems to expect of them – seems good. So what could go wrong?

It’s the “consistent treatment of public and private tertiary education providers” in the bill, which is currently before select committee, that worries me. Consistent treatment seems all well and good from the outside, but within the tertiary education system – which is all about specialisation, let’s be honest – it’s pretty clear that some institutions are apples, and some are oranges. Some are tomatoes – and as the maxim goes, they may be a fruit, but you don’t put them in your fruit salad.

This diversity of our education system is important. We need practical training for careers, and we need research-led teaching in areas where research expertise is necessary to keep up with the pace of change in rapidly developing fields. We also need the public good aspects of our tertiary education sector enshrined in Section 162 (4a-v) of the 1989 Education Act: it is already difficult enough for a scientist such as Massey University’s Mike Joy to speak freely on water quality in the face of the industrial dairy lobby. Just consider for a moment, whether he could do so, employed by a for-profit institution?

There is more to this though. The Government has a responsibility to think strategically about what the tertiary sector needs to deliver to the public of New Zealand, and legislate – and govern – appropriately. How many medical schools do we need, in a country of 4 million people? Most people would probably agree that the two we have is about right, given the significant depth of research expertise – which requires additional funding from the taxpayer – that is needed to sustain them as effective teaching organisations. There are more complicated questions though, and some of them are well overdue a little attention.

How do we maintain the critical value of scholarship in the humanities, in a system based on an ideology of profit before service? This is as far from a rhetorical question as I can imagine ever being able to ask: humanities scholarship is in crisis in EVERY university in New Zealand, right now.

How many universities do we need in New Zealand, in fact? Given that the paradigm of research-led teaching means that each university is required, by the Education Act, to maintain a staff that is research active (another activity that must be supported by the taxpayer), there are definite arguments in favour of minimising the number of institutions. You might even blame our world-leading-but-not-in-a-good-way low success rates – below 10% for many schemes – in our contestable funding of research programmes on the relatively high number of universities per capita in this country, and you wouldn’t exactly be wrong (although this is complicated too: we also have more government researchers employed in our Crown Research Institutes than most countries). But as we all know, New Zealand is an outlier on many measures, on a per capita basis – we’re world leading banana eaters, for one thing. But our education and research sectors will in many ways (good examples might include the environmental, geological, agricultural sciences) more naturally scale with the size of the country than with its population.

So the answers to these questions aren’t necessarily simple, but they do need answering, and they need to be transparently addressed by government. Is it important to New Zealand that our tertiary sector, and its benefits for local communities, be spread out across New Zealand? Is it perhaps a problem that universities are competing to optimise their international rankings for the purpose of attracting international students, leading to a rich-get-richer concentration of resources at certain institutions to the detriment of others?

Answering these questions – or at least trying to – is part of the core business of government.

David Seymour, a politician who has made his own mark on our education sector, recently tweeted about a concept that is rather dear to my heart: emergence.

It’s a powerful concept in physics, the idea that, individual bodies – whether birds that flock, or the atoms from which a magnet may be built – interact with each other according to simple rules, but result in behavior that could never be predicted from the study of a single unit on its own. For a quick summary of the physics, I recommend nothing so much as googling “murmurations of starlings”, and while you will quickly lose an hour to watching these videos, it’s a pretty pleasurable way to think about some physics.

I like to think that this is what we do, when we teach: provide students with the necessary awareness of their environment, with all its threats and opportunities, and leave them to head off and do as they will. To act independently, but with the ability to navigate their environment and thus act in concert, to achieve things that would be unimaginable for an individual. But they aren’t all starlings: I’ve taught any number of Jonathan Livingston Seagulls, and the occasional student has even reminded me of my childhood hero, the kea Strongbeak.

Our tertiary education system has to remain focused on the needs of our students – as diverse as they are – and while increased provision for accountability and monitoring in the proposed Amendment Bill seems wise, the reality is that it is a stopgap provision for the immediately obvious issues that occur when you look to expand the reach and scale of the private sector in the provision of tertiary education in New Zealand. For all that I remain concerned about the impact of this bill on our universities, it is unquestionably the cheaper and more profitable end of the education ‘market’ that will be preyed on first by for-profit providers. My most serious concern, given the ongoing inequity in access to education in New Zealand, is that it will be those from families and backgrounds who are least able to provide critical support of the value of different tertiary education providers who will be impacted by low value courses, paid for (because consistent treatment, of course) by our student loan system.

On the other hand: what could the future look like? Some transparent government strategy around investment in our universities and other tertiary institutions, and discussion of their value to communities would be nice. Support for the humanities, and recognition that 18 year olds shouldn’t necessarily be committing to a career, but given time to develop their skill set – their ability to fly, whether in murmurations or alone – they can and should be left to choose the application of their skills later.

And as for that increased accountability and monitoring? Surely the first cab off the rank on that account should be the adoption of a scheme such as the UK’s Athena Swan or Australia’s SAGE programme: monitoring of gender and ethnic diversity and inclusion in our universities is well overdue, and – as other countries have done – making our universities accountable as they should be, as public institutions, through linking funding to progress on these measures would be welcome.

It’s hard to imagine any of this – what I’d consider real and meaningful accountability – happening in private institutions though.

Submissions on the Education (Tertiary Education and other matters) Amendment Bill are open now and close on 23 June.


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