27 Jun 2023

Political parties back extra tertiary education funding

5:31 pm on 27 June 2023
Generic Library / Students

Education Minister Jan Tinetti and Finance Minister Grant Robertson announced extra funding for universities and tertiary institutions today (file image). Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Opposition parties are largely endorsing the government's move to pump $128 million more into tertiary education, but say it shows things need to change.

National and ACT argue the funding would not have been needed if they were in power, while the Greens say the funding system is long overdue for an overhaul.

The government announced the funding on Tuesday afternoon, after recent proposals from Victoria University of Wellington and Otago University for widescale job cuts, with entire subjects at risk.

The government also announced plans for a full review of tertiary education funding, though its terms of reference are not expected to be presented to Cabinet until December - after the election in October.

Opposition Leader Christopher Luxon was supportive of the government's funding, saying it was necessary but would not have been needed if National were in power.

"We don't want our universities going broke," he said. "I think we've got no choice but to make sure our universities don't go bankrupt and we've got to back our universities."

"Frankly we wouldn't be here if we had a National government because we would have recovered the international student section much faster, we wouldn't have spent an endless amount of wasteful time on a mega polytechnic merger, and frankly we would ensure that more than 50 percent of our kids are not failing our university entrance exam.

"We would be managing inflation down in the first instance."

He said it showed "gross incompetence" from the government.

"It's been an unmitigated disaster for the past six years and there's one person been in charge [of education] for the last five and a half years, it's been Chris Hipkins."

He had not had a chance to look into the review the government had announced, he said, and had no opinion on whether it was too slow.

He refused to lay out just yet what National would do for universities if it was in government.

"We'll have more to say about that with our education policy before the election," he said.

ACT leader David Seymour took a similar approach, saying the funding was only needed because of mismanagement.

"Yes, it is necessary to keep universities going, of course it is. We need to ask how we got here: Closing the borders for far too long when there were easier options available, putting funding into fees-free tertiary that hasn't increased participation but has effectively paid off the student loans of mostly well-to-do citizens."

ACT Party leader David Seymour.

ACT leader David Seymour Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Seymour was also more willing to lay judgement on the universities' financial arrangements than Luxon.

"The universities need to rationalise," he said. "There are far too many departments in far too many subjects at far too many universities for the size of the country. The universities do need the flexibility to make sure that we have a few centres of excellence in each subject."

Green Party tertiary education spokesperson Chloe Swarbrick welcomed the extra funding, but suggested the review was what really mattered.

"The funding model for our universities is fundamentally broken, and that's what the focus needs to be on," she said.

"I'm really proud to have worked with the Tertiary Education Union, with students associations and with the minister in making this happen - but it is a plaster, a band-aid for what is needed which is long-term structural solutions.

Chloe Swarbrick

Green Party tertiary education spokesperson Chloe Swarbrick. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

"The review has also been a really long time coming, so stoked to see the government committing to that. What we now need to see is the terms of reference.

"To that effect I'd say that it has been incredibly frustrating over the past few years to consistently be in select committee talking to the [Tertiary Education Commission] and [Ministry of Education] and asking them about students. They consistently say there is no problem because they don't have the data to show it because they're not collecting that data, so we want to see students front and centre of that inquiry."

She said part of the problem with the funding of universities was declining student enrolment, and poverty and hardship had a role to play in that.

"Perhaps we need to ask the question of why students aren't enrolling in tertiary education in the first place," she said. "What we're hearing very clearly - as actually evidenced in our student inquiry last year - is that two thirds of students regularly cannot afford the basics."

Te Pāti Māori has been approached for comment.

  • Government announces extra $128m for cash-strapped universities, tertiary institutions
  • 'Huge distress': Post-grads students feel impact of AUT staff cuts
  • Starved of funds and vision, struggling universities put NZ’s entire research strategy at risk
  • Teacher shortage in capital will take another hit if university axes training course, principal warns
  • University of Otago proposes cutting 'several hundred' jobs