Higher education a low priority as Kiwis headed to polls

Universities and students were disappointed that New Zealand’s political parties largely ignored them as they competed for votes ahead of Saturday’s general election.

Race and the rising cost of living dominated the debate as the incumbent Labour Party defended against its higher-polling rival the National Party (National) and that party’s likely coalition partner the ACT Party. This is despite serious signs of stress among the country’s eight universities.

Following the poll, Labour conceded defeat and the National Party is set to form a coalition with ACT.

Last year six universities made financial deficits. At least five are heading that way this year and three are currently in the midst of major job cuts.

The only high-profile higher education issue was been National’s promise to set up a third medical school at the University of Waikato, countered by Labour’s promise to fund more places at the existing medical schools at Auckland and Otago universities.

Examination of the major parties’ manifestos showed there was little more on offer.

The Labour Party promised to review university funding and restore the requirement for the governing councils of universities to have two student members.

The National Party promised to speed up the return of foreign students, whose numbers dropped to university-budget-damaging lows as a result of border closures during the first two years of the pandemic.

Meanwhile the Green, New Zealand First, and Maori parties had student-focused policies including universal allowances and student loan abatements.

Few changes likely

However, as minor parties they are unlikely to get traction for high-cost, student-centred policies in any government they might form with National or Labour. That means very little will change for the country’s universities or their students no matter who manages to form a government after 14 October.

In advance of polling, Universities New Zealand Chief Executive Chris Whelan said politicians do not recognise the value of investing in universities.

“It’s quite notable that there is no real mention of higher education in any of the major party manifestos. Obviously from our point of view that’s disappointing. We certainly believe and would love politicians to understand the value that can be unlocked for this country by actually investing properly in higher education,” he said.

Whelan said to some extent universities are victims of their own success – doing well enough financially from year to year so that governments see no need to intervene.

“Universities have tended to be very good at getting in front of problems and managing through them. As a consequence it has meant that successive governments have been able to largely say: ‘Yes, universities are well-managed, they’ll sort it out’. And they’ve tended to benign[ly] neglect, ignore universities.”

Cutting the value-add

But Whelan warned that politicians can no longer assume universities are in good health.

“As a country we’re seeing a long, slow decline in funding in real terms for universities. Looking at inflation forecasts till the end of next year, inflation will have gone up by about 30% over 10 years at a time when funding per student has only gone up 20%,” he said.

“Universities are being forced into this continuous cycle of basically having to cut a lot of the value-add stuff in order to simply keep the lights on and make payroll. So there’s a whole lot of additional research, there’s a whole lot of new models of teaching, there’s a whole lot of new technologies that can significantly enhance teaching and improve the skills of graduates that we’re not able to invest in because of current funding settings,” he said.

Whelan said the funding review promised by Labour if it returned to power would be a good start, but only if more money is added to the system.

New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations President Ellen Dixon said the Green and Maori parties suggested a universal student allowance but apart from that, higher education and the needs of students barely featured.

“Students don’t really feature as much anymore which is kind of strange when we juxtapose that against how active students have been in the public spaces to do with voting,” she said.

“I think possibly it’s a bit of a strategic move to try and downplay a lot of the issues of the tertiary sector by a lot of the parties who are preferring to talk more about the cost of living crisis,” said Dixon.

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