The debate is centred around whether New Zealand should shift to a “variable subsidies” model for tertiary education so taxpayers only end up paying for the number of students actually needed for jobs.
As Williamson explains, it could look something like this: The top students (who qualify by way of scholarships, bursary or something else) are given a “good subsidy” – potentially about 90 per cent.
The next block (perhaps the next 50 per cent of students) get the standard subsidy currently provided – roughly 75 per cent – and then anyone else wanting to study a particular course pays their own way, suggests Williamson.
The Commission looked at exactly that idea when it was picking fault with the country’s tertiary system after it was asked to look at barriers to new models of education.
Graham Scott, one of the commissioners tasked with fronting MPs about the report at select committee on Wednesday, said the approach Williamson was suggesting was one they’d recommended in their report.
But how would it work?
Put simply, the government would decide, for example, how many lawyers, vets, accountants or teachers it needed each year and subsidise accordingly.
Anyone falling outside of the “need” category would still have access to courses but would need to cough up the cash themselves.
Williamson broke down his argument by taking a look at art history.
His data suggests about 10,000 students took the subject at Auckland University, which he says he has no issue with but the question was whether taxpayers should fund it.
“Maybe we want 500 art historian graduates that we fund well, the next cohort moderately maybe and the last cohort is anyone who wants to can but they fund it themselves.”
There’s some merit to the suggestion, as taxpayers do fund a lot of degrees. But I would have qualms about the Government deciding how many art historians we need, how many lawyers we need etc etc. I prefer to leave it to the market.
But that argument doesn’t wash with everyone – take Labour’s education spokesman Chris Hipkins who questioned how many people go into a job directly connected to their field of study once they finish university.
“My pick is the art history graduates aren’t going off to be art historians, but they’ve all got jobs where they’re getting well paid and the stats would back that up.
Hipkins has a point. Plus degrees in areas such as philosophy or classics can be beneficial to society, without being linked to particular jobs.