Guest Post: TEU on Productivity Commission report

A guest post by Sandra Grey, National President of the Tertiary Education Union:

Productivity Commission’s advice to extend government’s failed experiment in free market education could turn in us into Golgafrinchans

The importance of giving New Zealanders control of what they need from their education system seems to have passed the Productivity Commission by in its final report into tertiary education published on Tuesday. Rather they seem to think it would better to leave decisions over how to manage the system to the invisible hand of the market.

 We already have evidence from here and other nations of what happens if an ‘invisible hand’ gets to work in tertiary education. Trusted quality public institutions are merged, downsized, courses cut, and students abandoned. Over the past five years the government’s experiment in free market education, trialled in some levels of provision, has seen institutes of technology and polytechnics closing courses in small rural and regional communities because they’ve lost out to for-profit providers. Crazily those very same for-profit providers then have to negotiate to use the resources of the public institutions because they are the only ones with adequate classrooms, labs, workshops, and libraries.

We only need to look across the ditch to see what extending this market experiment will do. A few years after beginning a disastrous experiment in marketisation the Australian government has begun to back track because the market is failing students, communities and employers. It has seen profiteering blow out student loan debt, students induced to sign up to courses that are never delivered but the taxpayer paid for, and TAFEs (polytechs) closing courses and shedding expert staff due to a lack of government support.

What’s perhaps even more strange is that the recommendations to extend the invisible hand over all tertiary provision seems at odds with the Productivity Commission’s own findings. After listening to those who work in tertiary education the Commission noted that the system is stuck and unable to adapt because of the placed on the pseudo market that exists in tertiary education by successive governments. Why would they want to extend this approach?

In its findings the Commission provides example after example of innovative and creative teaching in our public institutions – polytechnics, wananga and universities.  Why then would we as a nation want to pin our hope for ‘disruptive innovation’ on ‘new entrants to the market’ rather than working with established providers that have been shown time and time again to be innovative? What is really needed to allow for innovative teaching is the removal of performance based funding approaches, which do little to guarantee quality education (something the Commission definitely gets right).

Instead of assuming the answer lies in expanding the government’s failed experiment in free market education, let’s start a national conversation about what we want from our tertiary education system. This includes kiwis having a say – as we always have through our elected representatives – over where and how we want education provided in New Zealand. Sitting on Queen Street with colleagues we note the dozens of shop fronts for our tertiary providers all competing to get Auckland students while provision in other parts of the country withers. The Commission noted we need more collaboration in tertiary education, but failed to explain how a more market-based approach with institutions scrambling to get more Auckland students benefits communities up and down the country that are already losing out from these approaches. 

Interestingly in its report the Commission criticised the government for having a ‘political interest in maintaining existing levels of regional provision, regardless of demand (p. 355).’ Why is this wrong? If the market is failing communities, resulting in education access being stripped away, then the government should listen to employers, families, communities and students to ensure they provide for those communities.

In the report the Commission encourages the government to use pricing to improve education access. Why not simply retain a publicly managed tertiary education system and pool our resources to meet the needs, rather than waiting for the market to fail and then provide even more public funding to profit seekers who might agree to fill the gap? The government shouldn’t gamble on an experiment to ensure people get access to tertiary education, rather ensure there are sound, reliable, and dynamic public providers here for current and future generations.

The problem with the market experiment is we might find ourselves like the Golgafrinchans in Douglas Adams’ ‘Restaurant at the end of the universe’, who foolishly banished all hairdressers and telephone sanitisers to the B ark believing them unnecessary. While we aren’t banishing people to arks, leaving tertiary education provision to an open market could see students stepping away from studying hairdressing and telephone sanitisation. Before long this would lead to tertiary providers closing those unviable courses and getting rid of staff.  Before we know it, we have a missing set of skills and no one to teach them. We then just hope the market might deliver. But while waiting for the market to respond we, like the Golgafrinchans, could find ourselves wiped out by a virulent disease which thrived in wars covered by unkempt hair and contracted from dirty telephones.

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