Creating a behemoth to run tertiary education

At a cabinet committee meeting in February Helen Clark began tapping her fingers on the table, causing Steve Maharey to interrupt his earnest briefing to inquire: “What’s up?”. “Just get on and do it,” said the boss.

That’s the atmosphere in which Maharey is now implementing his Tertiary Education Advisory Commission’s (TEAC) proposals. But has he got the right vehicle? Before Maharey got the cabinet go-ahead, a wary Michael Cullen commissioned a full suite of Treasury reports – rare for him on a social policy issue.

Cullen is an elitist in the right sense of that word: he wants universities to produce high-quality graduates and research. EFT-based funding, each student in effect bringing a wodge of money, has pitched institutions into turf wars and had universities slavering over bodies to park on lecture-hall benches. Volume has driven out value, elitists reckon.

This elitism is not easily married to Labour and Alliance instincts for equality of access and opportunity (which TEAC supports). Such equality presumes every person, however academically marginal, can equally claim a university place. It also presumes that all degrees are equal, however acquired.

Both presumptions are false. The result is debasement. The message is: for a good degree employers will respect, go overseas. Likewise if you want to join a centre of excellence.

But excellence (which the eclectic TEAC also wants) is required to meet Clark’s central ambition of “economic transformation” to a “knowledge society”. That transformation requires decisive and drastic reorganisation of the sector.

So you might expect tough executive action, run through, say, a purpose-built taskforce of the sharpest public servants. Instead Maharey backs TEAC’s recipe: a sprawling new $1.5 billion-a-year “autonomous” Crown entity to administer and fund the tertiary sector, with an unwieldy board of 12. “Autonomous” means operating to government guidelines but not to a day-to-day prescription.

Why this self-denial by Maharey when Clark wants swift and decisive action? He wants to get the sector to “own” the reforms – so does Clark, though she calls it “buy-in”. They think this impossible if the cabinet drives the reforms through a department or agency. They’re almost certainly right in that but have they missed the point?

“Owning” reforms allegedly, in the new cuddly social democratic lexicon, produces more lasting and more effective results. The danger in this case is that it is sharks Maharey wants to do the owning: patch-obsessed vice-chancellors and ambitious pretenders.

A central point of Maharey’s reforms is to reverse the proliferation of courses so that each institution doesn’t try to do everything. This is not only to conserve scarce resources but to ward off mediocrity. Maharey also wants to steer students away from law and commerce and towards science and other “knowledge society” aids.

For a bead on how hard rationalisation will be Maharey needs only look across the cabinet table: when the government tried to stop Waikato University setting up an unnecessary new law school in the early 1990s, dean-to-be Margaret Wilson mobilised the region’s burghers and farmers and won hands down.

It ought to be even easier to pick off the jelly-knees in a board of 12 than to bend cabinet ministers. What will Maharey do if his board gets snarled up by delaying tactics and obstructive politicking and compromises his objectives? With a Crown entity his only recourse is an impractical one: to fire his board.

Actually, the board is likely to end up much smaller. At least one TEAC member wants that and so does Clark (which should be decisive). But a small board might run into difficulties getting “ownership” and buy-in if sub-sectors feel left out.

One sub-sector of special interest to business is industry training. That is now run by a stand-alone agency, Skill New Zealand, which ministers say is very focused and has delivered well, especially on their modern apprenticeships. But “seamlessness” requires its absorption within the new behemoth.

This makes the Council of Trade Unions nervous, with good reason. Maharey’s board will have its hands full herding the universities and fencing off the polytechnics, teachers colleges and private providers (which Maharey wants culled). Industry training risks becoming a forgotten orphan. Now it has a direct pipeline to the minister.

Does industry training matter in a high-tech world? Yes, say “knowledge society” economic transformers. TEAC says being inside the new Tertiary Education Commission, as it is to be called, will plug training into the transformation.

Oh yeah? Watch for some fine tuning, again from the top. Seamlessness might have to coexist with some internal semi-autonomy.