Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Editorial: Finding a way to pick courses

Ever since this Government came to office it has been talking about changing the way it finances universities and polytechs of various kinds. It wants to stop funding courses simply by the number of students who choose to take them, and start selecting the courses that it considers will most benefit the economy and society. It has had this aim for more than six years now and seems not much further ahead.

Finance Minister Michael Cullen, who took over tertiary education from Steve Maharey last year, made his first announcement on the subject yesterday and was as vague as the previous minister about how the Government will decide what to fund. Tertiary institutions learned only that yet another unspecified change is in the wind and that they will be consulted about it by no less than three Government agencies, the Ministry of Education, the Qualifications Authority and the Tertiary Education Commission, all of whom have fingers in the tertiary pie.

The commission, set up by Mr Maharey, requires universities and polytechs to draw up charters and "profiles" of themselves to help ensure that they were not duplicating courses and competing unduly for students. Dr Cullen said existing charters and profiles would be used to guide the Government's investment, though "at the heart of each profile", he said, "there must be evidence that organisations have consulted with industry, researchers and the local community, and that their plans are aligned with the Government's economic strategies".

In other words, the Government will be guided by what the institutions want to do, so long as the institutions are guided by what the Government wants to do. In truth, nobody involved in this project knows quite what to do. Precisely which subjects does the Government think will contribute most to the improvement of the economy? It has not said. More tellingly, which subjects does it not favour? It dare not say, particularly if the subjects are being taken up by more students than the Government wants to fund.

That will be the rub. This Government thinks it knows better than prospective students when it comes to deciding what qualifications they should seek. As Dr Cullen said in his address to "stakeholders" yesterday, "the current system relied too much on the short-term decisions of individual students, and is not helping us develop the kind of strategically focused tertiary education system that we need".

When a project such as this turns out to be making so little progress, the reason is usually that it is built on a fallacy. The fallacy in this one is that an economy is somehow separate from the people who comprise it. An economy is built entirely on the inclinations, energies and aptitudes of the people participating in it. People follow their interests and talents when they decide what to study, with an eye also on the opportunities and rewards available.

At present tertiary education is funded on the principle that everyone deserves substantial state support to reach their potential. This Government believes everyone would be better off if it directs state support to what it regards as the greater good. At this rate, it will spend the rest of its time in office trying to arrive at a fair and rational formula for fixing the economic and social value of different subjects of study. It is a fool's errand.

"The architecture of the new funding system remains at this point very open," said Dr Cullen yesterday. We do not know what he means; we suspect he does not know either. At least while confusion reigns in policy-making, the basic funding system still in force allows students to continue making decisions for themselves.

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