News & Events

Voices from tertiary education: What does the Productivity Commission’s report mean for the future?

BY The Policy Observatory

A public forum featuring:

Alistair Shaw (NZUSA), Brian Easton (economist), Dave Guerin (Editor, Ed Directions), Gus Gilmore (Chief executive, MIT), Julienne Molineaux (The Policy Observatory), Sandra Grey (TEU), and Shaun Hendy (University of Auckland).

On Thursday 11th May The Policy Observatory hosted a panel discussion on the Productivity Commission’s report into tertiary education. The Productivity Commission’s report can be found here. The meeting was co-organised by the Tertiary Education Union and the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations, and a discussion was held the previous day in Wellington with a different line-up of speakers. A write-up of the Wellington event can be found here.

The speakers at the Auckland event represented different parts of the sector and the views were diverse; nonetheless, there were significant areas of unanimity. An area for agreement was that market-based solutions – a key focus for the Commission – don’t work in the education sector. Economist Brian Easton listed the conditions needed for markets to work – such as ‘consumers’ having full information about their ‘purchases’ and low costs if the wrong decision is made – and how these are not features of education. Panellist Shaun Hendy reported that competition between institutions had added transactions costs to research collaborations. The panel generally agreed that competition for students meant institutions tried to hold onto their students rather than consider the students’ best interests, and sizeable expense was given over to the marketing and branding of institutions.

The Commission’s report suggests that existing tertiary education providers are reluctant to innovate and that new providers – including from overseas – are the logical source of new ideas for the sector. But the meeting was in agreement that the sector is keen to innovate, and many of the weaknesses in the current system stem from government regulation which can stymie change, and can create perverse incentives. An example given was funding for course completions, a policy that ignores the way people engage with higher education. Exiting education without completion is not necessarily a sign of failure either on the part of the student or the institution; indeed, if education works as it should then it makes sense for students to put study on hold, changes courses, or institutions, if it becomes clear that their current pathway is not right for them (or not at this stage of their life). Likewise, finding good employment part-way through a course of study should be viewed as a sign of success, not a failure with financial penalties for the institution.

The panel expressed a desire to put aside differences and competitive urges to look at solutions. While many individuals and organisations were consulted by the Commission, they were interviewed one at a time. The panel felt a group process would result in a more nuanced understanding of tertiary education challenges. There may be issues the sector can solve itself; there is also benefit from the sector contributing ideas for reform to the policy and political agendas.

It was noted that the database of submissions to the Inquiry [here] provides a rich source of information and ideas.