Former Labour Minister of Finance, Dr Michael Cullen famously said in a 1999 General Election campaign speech that he wanted a “knowledge economy” for New Zealand. That speech was one of several that year about how a new Government would put emphasis on people getting a good tertiary education and being able to contribute to an economy based on knowledge.
As a politically naive 18 year old going 19, and hoping to start my tertiary education in 2000 it sounded good to me. I was disgusted with National’s refusal to acknowledge the steep rises in university fees for students were largely of its making. A University of Canterbury student occupation of the registry building following a hike in fees had gained national attention, but failed to budge the mind of the Vice Chancellor. And a television documentary about Ireland’s then impressive economic growth in a science based economy where research investment as a percentage of G.D.P. was over 2% per annum, which made New Zealand’s 0.9% look paltry had made me start to think about the sort of country I want to live in.
When Labour came to office in 1999, their then Minister of Tertiary Education Steve Maharey was something of a hero to students for his stand against ballooning tertiary fees at universities. The students who voted for Labour either had a short term memory or were too young to remember one of Mr Maharey’s colleagues a rather young Phil Goff supporting a rise in student fees back in 1989, during Labour’s experiment with deregulation.
It is funny then to note that just two years later whilst the author was an undergraduate geology student, Mr Maharey began to reduce by stealthy means the budget for tertiary education. Despite student debt fast closing on N.Z.$4 billion (now over N.Z.$10 billion), Labour proved reluctant to tackle a problem that now makes up a significant portion of New Zealand’s total debt. Labours reluctance, coupled with National still being unpopular with students for its poor handling of the Work and Income student allowances debacle in 1999 meant that the students who could reasonably finish their degrees and jump on a plane to Canada, the United States, Britain or Australia were doing so in droves. It enabled them to not only get a job with better pay, but also to move ahead in live and start thinking about their long term.
Recent decisions by National have included measures to ensure that student loan holders do not duck their responsibilities to pay back. Whilst this is welcome from a purely financial perspective, it has been undone by other measures that have come into force since Labour left office in 2008. One of those is the ending of the Postgraduate Allowance to enable postgraduate students to undertake advanced study and at the same time have a means of surviving. This is particularly concerning to me as I am currently making inquires into starting a Masters thesis.
Another, which Labour must share equal blame for is the failure to seriously address the overall cost of living, treating universities as if their first priority is to make a profit and not be places of higher instruction. This is mirrored in the attacks on the Arts faculties vis a vis funding cuts and changes in priorities – all the more strange when learning a foreign language is one of the best things a person could do; when a need to understand both Islamic issues and American issues has never been higher.
15 years have passed since those days where my awareness about tertiary was in its formulative stages. In that time I am not convinced unfortunately that the subject classes of politicians have learnt much from 1999.