Labour’s promise of free tertiary education

20 February 2016

Free tertiary education for three years — who wouldn’t want that? It’s what the Labour Party is promising if they’re elected in 2017, and again in 2020 and 2023, when they finally hope to implement the policy. 

While I’m sympathetic to the intention (if underwhelmed by the urgency), it won’t go anywhere near far enough to address some of the issues facing post-secondary education. From my experience as a tutor and observer of what’s happening in education there’s a big crunch occurring from a number of directions.

Worldwide the numbers of young people opting for education after high school has grown enormously over the last few decades. From the perspective of governments this is costly. 

Then there’s the phenomenon of “educational inflation”. Once upon a time a bachelor’s degree might get you a good job, then it was a masters degree that was needed to stand out. Now even that’s no guarantee of a well-paying job for many graduates. The question many young people will be asking: is why endure years of living hand-to-mouth, be saddled with student debt and risk being no better off than when you started? If you’re not from a family wealthy enough to support you for a number of years, there’s pressure to make a rational decision to drop out of the higher education race or only buy into it as an alternative to being on a benefit.

It’s also rational to think differently about education. Perhaps I can learn what I’m passionate about it in some other way, through volunteer work and mentoring for instance. Or maybe I accept that I’m going to work in retail or hospitality and I’ll gain a sense of worth through self-education as a creative artist or becoming an expert on permaculture. Both of which can easily be done by watching You Tube videos, getting books from the library and connecting with like-minded people in the community.

You’ve also got the emergence of new education providers that aren’t tied to national academic regulations. Internationally there are new internet-based education providers like Kahn Academy offering an online education for free. These will likely get better in quality and be more appealing to international thinking student. 

Consider all these factors and the model of centralised government funded tertiary education starts to look increasingly dinosaurish.

In response some politicians will likely advocate selling off tertiary institution assets altogether. The market reforms of the tertiary sector already see New Zealand universities and polytechs run like corporations competing for fee paying students. At the top are overpaid upper management, who usually have no background in teaching. While many staff put up with temporary and part-time contracts and the stress of unrealistic work demands.

The market model combined with declining government funding also means tertiary institutions are being tempted to sacrifice educational quality for a fast buck from courses where teaching hours are less than what national standards require. Some New Zealand tertiary institutions have recently been found out, others will be nervous.

So yes Labour, three years of free post-school education sounds good, but you’re going to have to do a whole lot better if you want to properly address the problems and issues faced by the tertiary education system.

As a parent I know I’ll be encouraging my kids to think very carefully and perhaps outside the box about how they pursue their education and life goals.


Love poem to Hikurangi

862852906 February 2016

I was surprised to read the headline the other day that house prices in Hikurangi had risen 20%. According to real estate agents this was catch up for years of being undervalued. It seems like that old joke about Hikurangi being the “Ponsonby of the North” might finally be coming true.

Well, I’m all for good cafés and quality (but inexpensive) restaurants opening in my hometown, but I’ve no desire for Hikurangi to change too much. I’ll like its unpretentiousness, its working class history that’s evident in the modest houses, the remains of the old dairy factory and stories of a coal mining town. There’s a feeling I get in Hikurangi of being on the outskirts, separate from the mainstream, marginal. It hasn’t been fashionable to live here.

And I guess that’s the problem I have with Hikurangi being absorbed into the runaway housing market and now in the sights of Auckland property investors. I’m afraid something of the character of the town will be lost.

Which for me is what has happened to Grey Lynn, Ponsonby and other inner city suburbs in Auckland. The poor artists, the struggling musicians, the students, the weirdos and low income people have been pushed out. That’s not something I wish to see happen to Hikurangi.

A little while ago I wrote a prose poem that included some of the things I loved about the town I’ve lived in for 16 years. At the risk of romanticising Hikurangi and attracting more people to buy up the real estate, here it is…

Lovin’ the liquidambar next door, the red leaves that fall down on us.
The railway track over the fence, which you can look down both ways to a vanishing point.
The four damn churches; the toi toi in bloom, with the morning sun shining through like a halo, blessing us all.

The view of town when you come over the top of King Street: looking like the wild west.
The Hikurangi Hotel with its dark wood interior, pokie machines and whale’s dick over the bar; the Saturday night bands with their names in chalk.
The guy who wears overalls, who crosses the road at the same place everyday with his two dogs, who gruffly says hello.
The reggae that blasts from the house three up from ours.
The dairy, its cracked blue ceramic tiles and corner relief of a bull’s head; the Four Square that sells ready-made vegetarian curries.
The miner’s cottages and villas; the eastern hills with chopped down pine, gorse and scrub, so that it’s not picturesque.
The crossroads 6.7km out of town, where you can stand in silence.
The old stone path that gets covered in leaves, broken glass, cigarette butts and tinnies.
The young scruffies outside the Ruraltec talking about cars, girls and Xbox.

The primary school, the old classrooms in winter when it’s raining and the heaters are on; being 7 years old.
The dump and its growing piles of usable junk, the cheap framed photos on the fence, the bending of the rules.
The lake, the dragonflies flying low across the water and kids doing bombs.
The limestone rocks that tourists used to visit.
Because there’s room to imagine being somewhere else.
And our hill, the hill that Ngāpuhi forgot.