Analysis by Keith Rankin.
Tertiary education is in crisis in Aotearoa New Zealand. Vocational education, the domain of the Polytechnic ‘Institutes of Technology’; and Science and Humanities’ education, the traditional domain of the Universities.
2023 was an election year, yet tertiary education did not feature in the election campaign, despite these manifest crises. The Labour government was not interested in campaigning on its record, and for the mainstream media who frame election campaigns, the matter was not sexy enough. The media wanted a campaign largely restricted to fiscal holes, identity politics (especially bi-cultural divisions), and coalition-alignments (with a fascination for Winston Peters comparable with the fascination of the American media for Donald Trump).
(Occasionally health, education and climate change got into the election campaign discussion; but for health it was largely about constrained clinical services, in education it was about schools and possible curriculum impositions, and for climate change it was mainly about electric car subsidies. Nothing about the state of the population’s health, meeting New Zealand’s demographic challenges, the extent to which the consumers of education at all levels are disengaging with learning, addressing the lifestyle choices of the entitled minority, or fairly distributing the real cost burdens which we face.)
New Zealand’s underfunded universities are shedding staff in the public disciplines: humanities and public science. Once we were aspirational, or at least we wished to appear to be so, with Bright Future in 1999 and its predecessor, the Knowledge Society.
The Polytechnic Sector
The Te Pūkenga polytechnic saga is a scandal; a scandal attributable to former Prime Minister Chris Hipkins before he became Prime Minister. Yet his record in ministering to tertiary education was largely unremarked upon when he became Prime Minister, unopposed.
It was in the 1990s that the rot set in. Tertiary education became an export industry – not in itself a bad thing – which meant that this important public infrastructure increasingly came to be seen as a business (subject to private-market discipline) that just happened to do some intellectual public good as a side gig. The universities came to emulate polytechnics in that they increasingly emphasised professional vocational education over humanities; and they increasingly emphasised applied science over pure science.
Further, re the polytechnics, the governments either side of the millennium dropped the ball massively by not rebranding the leading polytechnics – as happened in Australia and United Kingdom – as Universities of Technology. For the polytechnics to be at the vanguard of a successful export-education model, they had to be branded as ‘universities’. So, for someone in Sri Lanka or Vietnam today – some young person who wants a good education which will gain them a good job in their home country – which was/is more attractive: University of Central Queensland at Rockhampton, or Manukau Institute of Technology?
New Zealand in 2023 has a tight labour market, though with unacceptably high levels of structural unemployment. The historical role of the New Zealand’s polytechnics has to address labour supply through reducing structural unemployment and structural underemployment; of upskilling the labour force. Yet this purpose of the polytechnic sector has been almost entirely absent from the minimal profile the sector has had in the mainstream media this decade so far; almost all I have heard is about financial losses, indicating the widespread perspective that the polytechnics are principally lame-duck businesses and only incidentally a critical part of the country’s educational infrastructure.
When such infrastructure is underfunded – the direct cause of the poor financial performance – two things happen. The polytechnic sector makes financial losses, the sector overinvests in a cost-management superstructure, and the sector gets restructured by the Ministry of Education. Service delivery – the sector’s raison d’être – becomes squeezed by the underfunding, management bloat, and top-down bureaucracy.
My impression has been that Treasury has been advocating a ‘free-rider’ policy; wishing to import skills from other countries, while seeking to suppressing investment in human capital on the grounds that employable educated Aotearoans can gain higher returns to themselves by emigrating. Such a free-rider policy is to be a net poacher of human capital; a poacher of people with employable skills.
In 2024 we, as a nation – as a mainstream liberal mediocracy – must start asking the right questions about the contributions that tertiary education can make to alleviating critical skills’ shortages. Labour supply is a critical component of a successful macroeconomy; and should not be addressed by austere monetary and fiscal policies which seek to suppress labour demand as a way of restoring balance to the labour market.
At least, in 2024, we have a Minister for Tertiary Education – Penny Simmonds – who understands the Polytechnic sector and its critical importance in addressing New Zealand’s labour supply problem.
The Polytechnic sector only made it through the media wall-of-silence this month because the cancelling of the Te Pūkenga project was just too big a story to ignore entirely. (Nevertheless, if I put ‘Te Pūkenga’ into the search facility of the New Zealand Herald android app, there are just two stories from 2023: one about a successful open day at UCOL’s Whanganui campus, 9 Aug 2023; and one from March about Microsoft facilitating the training of Māori and Pasifika for cybersecurity careers. Yet 2023 was an election year; a year in which the critical economic problem faced by this country was/is labour supply.)
The previous government not only mangled the Polytechnic sector, it, also abandoned the University sector. (This abandonment took place despite, so much of the time since 2020, the government was saying “the science says …”.) While it had no functioning Minister of Tertiary Education – the Minister of Education in 2023 only really seemed to understand school education – the Government had a substantially underemployed Minister in Deborah Russell who could have been an excellent advocate for the universities, and their potential contribution to an evolving knowledge society. I trust that Penny Simmonds has a vision for universities – other than cost-cutting – while understanding that most of her ministerial bandwidth will be taken up with the polytechnic(s). The confirmation of Massey University’s retrenchment was discussed on RNZ today, 14 Dec, on Checkpoint: Massey University confirms it’s pressing ahead with its plans.
The new government needs to make an urgent and clear statement that it values the sciences and the humanities as public goods, and that the support of these civilisational cornerstone activities needs to be broader than cross-subsidies of university student fees.
Unitec – formally Carrington Polytechnic, and which might have been better understood by non-Aucklanders had it been called West Auckland Institute of Technology – has suffered an appalling fate. Once New Zealand’s biggest Polytechnic – and the only tertiary educator of any note in West Auckland – Unitec became a land company around 2012. It became a campus with a Polytech as its main tenant. The first major problem was the Business School being turfed out of its purpose-built premises; premises which were then gutted by the new star tenant – multinational company IBM. Within about a year IBM abandoned its project, though the building continues to house a commercial tenant.
The polytechnic continued, doing great things despite underfunding and the machinations going on around the land which the government was coveting; and despite a burgeoning management superstructure, and its edict of ‘change management’. Eventually Unitec – a government owned land company cum polytechnic – was (unsurprisingly) practically bankrupt, and most of the land was sold to the government; and has subsequently been on-sold to a property development company.
The former campus is now a sorry site, and the property development scale and logistics will probably be unsurvivable for the tenant polytechnic; like a well-nourished rata tree strangling its host. This RNZ story this week Auckland urban development: complex manoeuvrings in Mt Albert gives a very pollyanna-ish take on the current state of this wonderful former green-space (and piece of Auckland’s history); now a ‘model’ “brownfield” development. (And we should note that, as well as suffocating Unitec – the tertiary educator, not the land bank – the development will surround the Mason Clinic, Aotearoa’s maximum-security psychiatric detention centre.)
My final plea is for the mainstream media to look at this ‘model’ property development with a critical eye, and see if it ‘cuts the mustard’ as a high density mixed-housing development. And to compare the potential of this ‘brownfields’ site with a nearby genuine brownfield site, the former Crown Lynn lands. Even if the former Unitec campus can be made to work as a modern tenement complex, will it have been worth the cost to the environment and to the educational infrastructure of West Auckland and Aotearoa New Zealand?
Keith Rankin (keith at rankin dot nz), trained as an economic historian, is a retired lecturer in Economics and Statistics. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.