NZ: Government promises education reforms

Universities look set to benefit but students could face a tougher financial support regime after the government announced that education would be one of its priorities for reform this year.

In his address to the opening of Parliament, Prime Minister John Key outlined the government's general plans in a speech that focused on changes to the tax system, growing the economy and improving social services.

"This government views our education system as one of the fundamental tools for creating an egalitarian society where all New Zealanders have an opportunity to succeed," Key told Parliament.

"We believe a high-performing education system at all levels is essential to ensuring New Zealand's young people have the skills they need to acquire the jobs of the future." He said universities would get more flexibility, though there was no detail on how this would be achieved.

"We are... concerned that our universities, thanks to an inflexible and bureaucratic funding and policy framework, are finding it increasingly difficult to produce the world-class graduates New Zealand's economy demands. We will be working with the universities to ensure government policies support their drive for excellence and equip our best and brightest with the skills for New Zealand's future."

But Key also indicated there would be tougher accountability requirements for tertiary education providers and for students. He said the government would address "increasingly urgent problems" in the tertiary sector, expressing concern that a large number of courses, particularly below degree-level, had drop-out rates as high as 50%, and some programmes did not equip students for the jobs they sought.

"We simply must improve the value we get from our tertiary education investment, both on behalf of taxpayers and employers, and on behalf of the students who take these courses."

But students would also have to meet higher standards. Key said the government would "take a careful look at the policy settings around student support to ensure that taxpayers' generosity is not being exploited by those who refuse to take their tertiary studies seriously, or who show little inclination to transition from tertiary training into work".
The New Zealand Union of Students Associations reacted with alarm to Key's speech: "While we support the government's intention to work with the tertiary sector to ensure high quality tertiary education, this should not come at the expense of hard -working students," said union co-President David Do.

"The government appears to be hinting at tightening eligibility for loans and allowances. This will hit students who are already struggling to make ends meet."

The Tertiary Education Union had earlier criticised Key for comments about low pass rates in some courses, saying they were an unfair dig at the very people and institutions who could help the government meet its economic goals.

"The prime minister says that he wants more skills, higher wages, and more kids in jobs - that is, a stronger, healthier economy," TEU President Tom Ryan said. "The tertiary education sector can help with all these goals. But not when the government continually whittles away its funding streams, caps student numbers, and treats staff and students with contempt."