A return to study


Rather than write a piece about politics, or some other aspect of society today I thought I would look at my journey through tertiary education and how it has both benefited and frustrated my attempts to work in local government. It sheds light on

I became interested in local government because of my father working for North Canterbury Catchment Board and then later on for Environment Canterbury. I was interested because I realized that whilst utilities are boring to most people, their maintenance and well being is critical to our well being. From that I deduced that I could either sit back and hope that someone else looks after them for me and for everyone else, or I could take a proactive route and find a way of working for the agencies that are delegated responsibility for them.

After about 2002 I gave on my original goal of working on active volcanoes. My mathematics was not brilliant, and I was struggling with geology at undergraduate level. I figured out at the end of my undergraduate degree that I would need to go back and study something at postgraduate level, but I did not know what.

As I have high blood pressure I had to take a more measured route, and after a short break I went back to study in 2005 for a Postgraduate Diploma of Science in Hazard Management. I could not do it full time, did not qualify for Honours due to my G.P.A. Students then that did Honours and passed were pretty much a shoo in for job they picked, as indeed some of those in my year were talking about job offers they had picked up before they had even finished their academic study. I finished my Postgraduate Diploma of Science at the end of 2006.

After a 18 months full time work at a super market I picked up a job at Environment Canterbury in 2008, which whilst casual would last 2 1/3 years and give me a significantly greater insight into local government, where I have the most desire to work. During that time though, something happened in terms of the qualifications and experience needed. I have found in more recent years with a flood of graduates coming out of universities with recognized planning qualifications that my ability to get a job in a city/district/regional council somewhere is not flash unless I have a formal qualification.

This lead me to enrol at Massey University in 2013. No particular qualification was selected because I was just wanting to see if I still had the willingness to learn new stuff. I did, but I quickly realized I would have trouble funding it, and very reluctantly backed away. Three years and a botched attempt at returning in the second half of 2016 followed. I decided after that to enrol at Open Polytechnic which offered a Graduate Diploma of Sustainable Management.

Aside from being my biggest academic success to date, the Graduate Diploma opened my eyes to things such as environmental economics, the  role of the media and also issues around conducting high level research. I was able to test my ability to conduct such research in an assessment that was 80% of a paper and 20% of the entire diploma.

I believe that whilst many of the candidates are probably sincere in wanting a council planning job and may know stuff I do not, I wonder what sort of grounding they had. Did they do geography and get an appreciation for humans and the environment in a spatial and temporal context? Did they do any biology or environmental science and realize that there is more truth in Sir David Attenborough’s words than we think? Would they be there because they really genuinely believe in the mission of their organization or would it be just a proverbial vehicle for them to help drive until they found something better and more suited them. Whatever the case, I wish them the best, but at the same time I wonder.

Some of the decisions that are taken by elected councils come across as questionable, or give the impression that elected officials have taken on a mind of their own, there is a catch 22 situation involved. They have to maintain a degree of fiscal responsibility when planning budgets for each year, yet at the same time it is necessary to ensure that councils are adequately staffed and resourced for the work their permanent staff are expected to do. A half baked policy is more likely to be the output of a planning staff that lack either competent staff to do the job or the knowledge/skill base necessary. Given the number and complexity of the problems dogging elected councils around the country, maybe it is time to look at how and who they hire.

Now I am back for a Postgraduate Diploma of Planning from Massey University. I still have the same interest in council planning process that I had when I was doing GEOG 444 at University of Canterbury. I still believe that if given a chance I can make an honest go of a job. And if not, it won’t be for a lack of trying to get a foot in the door. Or for attempting to get relevant qualifications!

 

The wrongness of unifying Industry Training Organizations


It has been announced that there are significant – and controversial – changes looming for New Zealand’s tertiary education sector. And as I seek to enrol once more at a tertiary institution (Massey University), casting my eye across the landscape of New Zealand tertiary education I cannot help but wonder whether this is not simply a case of change for the sake of change.

I studied at the Open Polytechnic from 2017-2018 to complete a Graduate Diploma of Sustainable Management. My experience with the Open Polytechnic was very positive. The teaching staff are competent; queries I had were answered in good time and respectfully and I was appropriately resourced for the study that I was expected to complete.

Perhaps it is not surprising that I am therefore alarmed that the Minister of Education is proposing to merge all 12 Industry Training Organizations (I.T.O.’s) and 16 Polytechnics and Institutes of Technology (I.T.P.’s) into a single massive organization. Also not surprisingly, there are numerous agencies and industry sector groups that are genuinely concerned about what the proposals of the Minister, Chris Hipkins, mean for them and for the sector.

In fairness there are some institutions that need a significant rev up in terms of their conduct and one or two might as a consequence find themselves not able to satisfactorily meet the demands realistically expected of them. These would be the weakest links and as such, possibly made to close. But I cannot support the merger of all of the Polytechnics and Wananga into a single mega polytechnic. To me this is consistent with the old adage about putting all of the eggs into one basket. But it goes further in potentially causing job losses at established campuses that we cannot afford in a sector where understaffing is already chronic. It also smacks of another problem with which New Zealand unfortunately already has much experience with in other industries: centralization.

Instead I believe that urban areas with 100,000 people or more should have one Polytechnic. That would be Auckland, Manukau, the Napier-Hastings urban area, Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. On top of that, a polytechnic that covers all distance and remote learning, which on current performance would be the Open Polytechnic. Similarly a condensation of I.T.P.’s might be necessary as well, but before that happens the Minister should reopen the proposals for further public consultation including listening to the very people for whom these institutions exist in the first place, and without which, they are nothing: the students.

Ministers and bureaucrats can have all the ideas in the world about how the teaching framework in New Zealand should look, but if it is not benefiting the very people it was set up to, then there is a problem. In other parts of the education sector we are seeing bad policy made without student input by previous governments starting to unravel, and with it their education is potentially unravelling as well. Which is not a good thing for any Minister of Education to have happen.

Are University qualifications worth their cost?


When I went to University of Canterbury, getting a tertiary degree was very much the “in” way of gaining a good qualification. It did not seem to matter too much what it was in, despite the significant cost increases since 1989’s education reforms having strongly increased the incentive to choose wisely. Arts, science, engineering, social work or law – all were “good to go”. In many ways they still are, but with university graduates finding it harder to find work, people are starting to question whether degrees are worth the cost any more.

I started in Geology in July 2000, intending to walk away with a Bachelor of Science. My postgraduate study would be entirely contingent on how my undergraduate degree went. I switched to Geography in 2002, having reached Year 3 in that major before getting out of Year 1 in Geology. Admittedly marks were mediocre, C+’s B-‘s with one or B’s interspersed for good measure. I think my Grade Point Average was about 3.00 or about a C+.

With those marks I knew I was not going to get into postgraduate study very easily, so I took a year off to refresh, travel and see about a Postgraduate Diploma in 2005-06 – my G.P. had warned me off attempting a Bachelor of Science with Honours because of the stress that it entailed in the Honours year.

The reasons for doing postgraduate study were simple. It amplified your job prospects considerably because your ability to be organized; conduct research and whole host of attributes useful for working in the work place were going to be exposed. It also opened up a whole lot of other opportunities including voluntary sector jobs that relied more on attributes than knowledge would pop up. And last but not least, those that made it into postgraduate are serious students with talent to burn.

And so that largely turned out for the students in my postgraduate years. With the exception of one or two they all found decent jobs, and most are now married or in steady relationships with children and trying to get on the property ladder.

I was one of the exceptions. The others started off nicely and bailed for various reasons. In my case I tried to find work, but I think a combination of employers being reluctant to hire people with declared medical risks, my work skills not being up to scratch and a worsening gambling addiction that interfered with my attitude all combined to delay my progress. I had envisaged as a result of my study, by my mid 30’s being out of home, steady partner and job doing something linked to my skill set. At this stage I cannot tick any of those boxes.

But how much would my study have helped? To be fair it certainly would have have helped, but would it have been a complete one size fits all solution? I am not sure it would have been.

Over the years, I have come to believe that the goal posts have moved. Employers have different expectations of what they want from employees. A failure to invest in research development and technology means it is a cut throat environment trying to find a job. Scores of great potential employees all looking for jobs that in many cases simply do not exist. But many of them have a bit of money, so they simply waved goodbye to New Zealand as soon as they got a visa to where they wanted to go and in some cases have not been seen since.

But what about those that do not have that money? What about those like me who have to live with long term medical factors? I could happily live somewhere else, but I have one problem. I cannot ever stop my medication. If I do I would lose control of my blood pressure and I have never been 100% confident I would be able to pay for the medication overseas. And so, I am stuck in the one country I am sure that I can.

Recently I completed a Graduate Diploma of Sustainable Management. Much was learnt and I have had by far the best marks ever in my tertiary study. At the Open Polytechnic, I demonstrated my ability to do serious research. I demonstrated my ability to be organized by completing it a month ahead of schedule and fitting in an overseas trip at the same time.

It has not changed what I want to do. I still want to work in environmental regulation or natural hazards. I still think a local government, Crown Research Institute or N.G.O. is the best way to go.

But was the Graduate Diploma worth the effort if employers have moved the goal posts again? Do not get me wrong – it was a superb result and I am still feeling the after glow weeks after getting the final marks, but what if it fails to be the break through I was hoping for? What then?

 

 

A ban too far: Don Brash’s Massey University ban


I will call it from the outset. Dr Don Brash’s speaking ban at Massey University was a ban too far.

Given that we never got to hear what Dr Brash was going to say, though we could make a reasonably good guess as to the subject matter, the decision by the Massey Vice Chancellor was not only a gross over reaction it was premature.

The other day the controversial Canadian activists Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux were stopped from an event¬†they were to talk about their opposition to immigration and their activism on the right of the political spectrum. Coming days after Ms Southern and Mr Molyneux’s controversial speaking engagement being cancelled, perhaps the Vice Chancellor of Massey University thought it was just not the time. Perhaps she thought, as she apparently did, that there would be a security threat or some other problem.

To ban Dr Brash, however divisive whatever he had to say might have been, from speaking at Massey speaks of a University that is scared to champion freedom of speech. It speaks of a University unable to tolerate something thousands of New Zealanders laid their lives down for in two world wars.

Do we actually know if what he was going to say is even divisive or not? Suspicions are one thing, facts are quite another – we do not know for fact that he actually had something divisive in mind.

I know a few people on the right. I disagree with them on most things, but not this. Not when the right to freedom of speech however horrible, wrong and improper whatever the speaker/s of the day might have to say is being challenged. That is not okay.

But my real beef is with Massey University. What on earth was the Vice Chancellor thinking? This will be damaging for the university as one of New Zealand’s tertiary institutions. People will look at Massey and wonder if it is going the same way that Berkeley University in California has gone – a place rocked by division and now loaded with tension, split along sharply partisan lines. I do not believe that the V.C. should resign, as others are calling for her to do, but to have a cold hard look at ones professional self in the mirror would be a very good idea.

I do not want to see any New Zealand institution, tertiary or otherwise go the direction that Berkeley has gone in California. For a land that prides itself on civility and a fair go, that would be a dreadful state of affairs to find ourselves in. But it is a direction we might be going if incidents like what happened at Massey with Dr Brash play out elsewhere in New Zealand.

Supporting our tertiary students


When I was studying at the University of Canterbury, there was a student debt clock on the wall of the main dining room in the Student Union building. When I started it was about N.Z.$4 billion in 2000. It was a depressing sight. The speed with which it kept going up was shocking – in the space of a lunch time period you could watch it put over $1,000. I queried the accuracy of it and got told by both the Student Union and the Accountancy Department that it was. Whilst watching the numbers soaring, it got me wondering about the best approaches to supporting students academic endeavours without financially crippling New Zealand.

There was a Emergency Unemployment Benefit. This could be applied for by students who have been working part time to help cover living costs whilst studying and found that their own funds cannot bridge the gap. This was New Zealand First policy during the 2002-2008 period.

My own idea is of an universal tertiary allowance proportionate to the amount of time one spends studying a week. An EFTS 1.0 student is one who is understood to be committed to full time study, and can only work if they have time left over after studying. For them the allowance should be a living wage of $680 per week, or $17 x 40 hours. It enables them to pay their fees on time and should supercede all existing tertiary education allowances and benefits.

The way it would work is, if a student is studying 15 hours or more would get half of the allowance. Those doing say 30 hours or more would be eligible for the full sum. Students working part time whilst studying would only be eligible if their work was casual or less than 10 hours per week.

During its time in office, National removed the Postgraduate Allowance, which was to support students doing Postgraduate qualifications such as Certificates, Diploma’s, Masters or Doctorates of Philosophy. At the time it was justified by the then Minister for Teritary Education along the lines of: “students can go on the student loan scheme as it is interest free”, whilst quite missing the general problem with loans being that at some point they have to be paid back.

I support any plan where a student has a portion of their debt wiped for every full year they spend working in New Zealand once their study is completed. One such plan could be a dollar for dollar scheme, whereby for every dollar paid in tax, a dollar is wiped from a students debt. So, a person with a $20,000 debt who is paying $5,000 in tax per annum would be all done in 4 years. Such a win win scenario will make New Zealand considerably more attractive to New Zealand students who might have been eyeing a one way ticket to another country.

All these years later and with the promise of $50 extra per week in the pockets of students studying starting on 01 January 2018, I am once again wondering whether tertiary support for students is appropriate and if not, what can we do about it?