Climate change lessons not for New Zealand students


A friend came to visit a few years ago and we went for a drive to the Waimakariri River, which was running high after heavy rain a few days earlier. When we got to the river, I thought we would go for a nature walk through a reserve on the banks of the river. I started talking to him about my interest in the river and the natural processes in it. My mate looked at me completely blank, and I asked him why. He had never done geography and by his own admission was completely ignorant of the river as a natural system.

Tonight, reading The Press whilst eating dinner, I was reminded about that conversation when I read about a climate change teaching resource for students. And I wondered how many actually understand physical geography, or have even heard of it. I then thought a bit more about the issue and came to the conclusion, that rather than teaching students about climate change, they should first know a bit about geography.

Geography is much more than just maps, which has come as a surprise to several of my non-geography minded mates. Maps are just the favoured way of displaying data temporally and spatially. It is spread across a broad range of sub topics – physical geography, human geography, political geography, to name just a few. In the case of physical geography, it can then be further divided into hydrology, climatology and geomorphology to look at physical processes affecting our water, climate and land. You can see in the Venn diagram below the interactions of processes in geography.

Source: Kansas State University

Once a student has done a bit of geography and gotten to know a bit about the planet they live on, about the human, natural, social and economic interactions that go on, they can tackle climate change. Certainly it is a subject that should not be ignored. But I am honestly not convinced that at high school level, that this should be taught. And certainly not with the doomsday tint that the subject seems to have taken on. Climate change might be one of the more potent ways in which a planet under huge and unsustainable stress from human resource consumption is showing that pain, but it is not the only symptom and nor should we treat it like that. Resource consumption in general has pushed the world into the Anthropocene, the geologic epoch whose record will show the full extent of the ecological assault taking place.

I expect that this will get some push back, particularly from students who might think people like me are part of the problem. So be it. To deal with this, one must view it as a whole, which students are not being currently encouraged to do. And which, over the course of 8 separate sessions, in class cannot be done sufficiently in depth.

Get private companies out of University accommodation


A few weeks ago, a student was found dead at the University of Canterbury. The discovery of the 19 year old who was estimated to have been dead for 8 weeks. It has kicked off a storm about whether profit-making companies should be in the business of managing tertiary accommodation.

Many students in halls are young people away from homes for the first time in their lives. Many will be nervous, and have no friends. They will not be in familiar environments and will be feeling stressed at having to fend for themselves all the while getting their studies underway.

In a country with an on-going mental health emergency, it seems that one of Christchurch’s biggest employers, the University of Canterbury has failed to heed the message: looking after student mental health is essential. It seems that Campus Living Villages has failed in its primary duty of care to the people that inhabit the villages it is responsible for looking after. And its Chief Executive has not helped things by saying:
“IF something needs to change…”.

No “IF’s”, “BUT’s” or “MAYBE’s” mate. Your company mucked up. Your company can fix up.

Then it can leave the tertiary accommodation sector.

I see no place for private companies in tertiary accommodation. If there need to be, they should be New Zealand companies operating to New Zealand law. A foreign company operating under a minimalist management model where the ratio of Residential Assistants was kept to a bare minimum – 54 students for every R.A. More importantly the two R.A.’s were only working part time, which further reduces the amount of contact time they had with their charges.

It is the culture that should be truly alarming. A human being dead for weeks would have been entering a horrible state of decomposition by that point – how could someone not have noticed the smell or perhaps other biological indicators such as ants or flies or maggots(!)? Why did no one from his courses contact the halls to see where their student had gone or to see if he was even still going to University – eight weeks is a full term plus mid-semester holidays and maybe a week longer?

And to the poor parents who thought their boy was going to be safe at the University that presumably he had chosen to study at and begin what for me was the most exciting chapter of my academic life, how do you explain what happened? CAN you explain what happened? I am not sure one honestly could.

Simply conducting investigations is merely the beginning of a much bigger process if University of Canterbury wants to recover the portion of its reputation that is now decomposing. It needs to boot out the Australian company. Its New Zealand replacement needs to have very clear terms of engagement set down including minimum full time staffing levels, a 24/7 help line, a supervisory panel making sure that all parties are compliant with their responsibilities.

How lucky I am that I live in the same town as where I went to University. I only had to cycle in or catch the bus. I knew from the outset numerous people there from Burnside High School and made more friends fairly quickly in Geography and Geology. The staff there were great and if I or another student was struggling they would pull us up to make sure we were okay.

Not everyone has that fortune. For some life at University can be very lonely. It does not need to be like this.

And if we want to stop another death, nor should it be.

National and Labour wrong about debt limits


When I was growing up I was taught – as was everybody else I know – that if you borrow money, you repay it. A rule that I abide by as best as I can to this day.

Spend within ones limits, unless you borrow money that you acknowledge is not yours and has to be repaid, was another rule that I was taught. For me, borrowing is something I would personally only do in an emergency and only if I could repay in full as soon as the problem has passed.

I will admit now, I did one economics paper at University only because it was suggested that I do one. To this day I do not know why because I knew when I enrolled in it I was not going to pass. I knew I was not interested in it in the least. I was correct on both accounts. I failed, made a conscious decision not to retake it and never looked back. So one might argue that I therefore know nothing about economics and am probably not the best person to judge the apparent bipartisanship in Parliament when it comes to raising debt limits. It might also be argued that running a country’s finances is a lot more complex than a private bank account.

As a student at the University of Canterbury I would sit in the main cafeteria watching the student debt clock that the University of Canterbury Students Association installed before I started, going up by tens of thousands of dollars an hour, hundreds of thousands of dollars a day and millions each week. I did challenge them on occasion as to the accuracy of the clock and was told rather patronizingly that it was. I asked myself and others whose fault it was that student debt was out of control and how it was going to be recovered. We could not completely agree – some thought it was entirely the Government for removing or undermining social assistance such as the postgraduate allowance, and the emergency unemployment benefit. Others thought it was the tertiary institutions, while still more thought it was students spending up large. Whatever the case it currently sits at $15 billion.

Politicians no longer seem interested in addressing how this debt will be repaid. The most recent figures point to 731,000 people having a debt averaging $21,000 to be repaid. Maybe it is a beast that they have put in the “too hard” basket. But that unwillingness to tackle this makes me wonder why I should trust them with handling the debt that would ensue.

I believe in saving borrowing for a rainy day period or for after a natural disaster where you will have unforeseen expenditures that will not be immediately obvious. After the Christchurch earthquakes, suddenly finding N.Z.$35 billion was not something New Zealand could do in a rush so in that instance we had no choice but to borrow. But how are we paying it back? ARE we paying it back? I hope so, because the more we pay back now, the better position we will be in financially for when the next disaster – be it an Alpine Fault earthquake, the Waimakariri River breaks out or one of the volcanoes in the North Island erupts – hits.

National and Labour’s bipartisanship on letting New Zealand’s government debt level increase is therefore something that I find alarming. It also brings me back to my favourite mantra of “growing the pie, instead of slicing and dicing the pie”, which I have described in recent articles.

If we do decide to increase our debt levels, which National’s Finance spokesperson Dr Paul Goldsmith is quite open to doing, we need to know what instruments we are going to use to raise the money. Raising taxes appears to be a no-no on both sides of the house for a change, with possibly only the Green Party interested in doing so. My own position on taxation can be found in other articles.

 

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, theĀ  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.