Gordon Campbell on the government’s self-defeating plans for universities

Steven Joyce happens to hold a set of portfolios central to the country’s economic planning and future direction. Joyce is the Minister of Economic Development, the Tertiary Education Minister and the Minister of Science and Technology. Theoretically, this should allow him to co-ordinate the government’s efforts in those three vital areas. Yet in his recent announcements on student loans, Joyce’s left hand did not appear to know what his right hand was doing. Last week, Joyce made it clear that the government is planning to push students into careers into science and technology – and away from arts and commerce studies – even while it is systematically underfunding the Crown Research Institute and university facilities that will be expected to employ them once they have finished their studies.

Already, funding pressures mean that those organisations are not hiring. In effect, Joyce is pushing people into a realm of academic studies where – once they have graduated – the majority would have to look overseas for their job prospects, and even the mid-career opportunities are so scarce in New Zealand that few are ever likely to come back. If there’s a rational plan here, it’s hard to see what it is.

As mentioned last week, Joyce’s changes to the student loan scheme will require students to lift the annual repayments on their student loans from ten to twelve cents in the dollar, This obligation will cut in on students on very low incomes, some of them earning as little as $19,000 annually. In addition, student allowances will be scrapped for those doing post-graduate work, at the point where four years of study have been completed.

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics have been earmarked to receive the “up to $60-70 million” estimated to result from these measures. Yet, as was quickly pointed out, the scrapping of post-graduate student allowances will also impact on those studying medicine, dentistry and veterinary medicine, besides the arts and commerce students singled out by Joyce. Given the country’s GP shortage, that seemed an inexplicable move – and according to Green Party MP Holly Walker, the change will be sending an overall signal that only the wealthy can expect to afford to pursue any form of post-graduate studies in future.

The government’s message is consistent on this point. It will be using the upcoming Budget to shift funding to favour degrees in science, technology, engineering and maths, and the Tertiary Education Commission has also called on tertiary institutions to increase the number of graduates in these fields. The TEC report, however, does not provide any evidence to support the need for more graduates in this field. Nor has Joyce so far. The need to provide that sort of supportive evidence is pretty clear, given the government’s prior track record of embarking on workforce planning on the basis of little more than hearsay and populist rhetoric. The result has seen too many skilled people competing for too few jobs, as demonstrated by the ill-fated $19 million exercise launched in 2009 to train more teachers to work in low decile schools and by this highly relevant example of scientists struggling to find work.

In a few weeks time, the Budget will give more information as to how the government plans to proceed with the social engineering that Joyce appears to have in mind, via the nation’s universities. Currently undergraduate student fees at universities average slightly less than $5000 for a full time load of arts study and a bit less than $6000 for a full time load of science study. Presumably, to make university studies in science more attractive than similar level courses in humanities the government will need to shift the subsidies by about $1000 per student per year to change that price differential. So will arts, commerce etc students be penalised to make up the shortfall? Presumably, the Budget will reveal whether this is to be the case. No new funding, after all, is going to be made available – so something has to give.

To repeat: there is no evidence that New Zealand can employ – and needs to employ – many more graduates in science and technology. Here is the immediate skills shortage list from Immigration NZ:

And here is a document from the Department of Labour outlining the likely areas of growth in employment opportunities over the next few years:

What these documents indicate is that yes, there are some shortages and opportunities in science and engineering (not so much in maths and technology) but there are many more opportunities in the service industries – in retail, construction and agriculture, for instance. Many of those “science” jobs require trades certificates, not degrees.

Anecdotally, that rings true. There is some evidence of science and technology jobs for people emerging from polytechnics, particularly for those with trade certificates. However, very few jobs exist for those with post-graduate degrees in science. The problem being, most science and technology jobs are based in either Crown Research Institutes or in universities – both of which are facing funding pressure from government and which therefore, are not hiring. On the face of it, Joyce is talking about shifting the focus of university course funding and fostering careers into areas where – with his other hand – he is limiting the funding required to sustain those careers. It might be different if New Zealand had a tradition of private sector research and development, but it doesn’t. In fact, one of the first acts of the incoming government in 2008 was to scrap the tax incentives that were meant to lift our levels of private sector r&d up closer to the international norm. This chronic failure of the New Zealand private sector to invest in r&d helps to explain why there is so much pressure from government on public sector institutions, for them to do private sector research. To that extent, CRIs and universities are being turned into providers of corporate welfare.

The government knows all this. Last year, 560 scientists signed an open letter to government decrying the dearth of career openings in New Zealand (and the minimal state support) for post-graduates in science. As things stand –if Joyce has his way – people will be being educated for jobs that do not exist while others will have their funding cut because they are studying subjects that the government has chosen to sacrifice, in order to increase the numbers of science and maths graduates that it has no capacity to employ.

In sum, it is hard to see how Joyce’s plans will do anything other than hasten the brain drain overseas. Politically, such plans also provide young voters with a festering source of resentment, and an excellent reason to vote against the government to which Joyce belongs. For a return of only “up to $60-70 million” at most, it hardly seems worth the trouble.