I didn't think I'd miss the previous govt. It was well past its use-by date, and for all that National indulges in a lot of nanny state enthusiasms, it has nothing on Labour when it comes to stuff like considering yourself in loco parentis over the grown-ups who elected you.
That said, there was one respect in which the last Labour administration had it all over National - it knew what to do with the tertiary education sector (unsurprising, given the backgrounds of much of its Cabinet). National, on the other hand, takes an approach to tertiary education that involves the application of Perverse Incentives, or as they prefer to call it, Performance Measurement.
It sounds reasonable enough - tertiary ed soaks up a huge wodge of taxpayer cash, and if you don't measure performance, how do you know whether you're getting value for money or not? Well, yes. Except that measuring universities' and polytechs' performance is a bit harder than establishing which salesman shifted the most appliances last year. With higher ed, you really need to have a good think about what behaviour you're going to encourage by rewarding it financially. So, an incoming National govt will naturally get experts in the field to advise them on appropriate performance measurement for it, right? Er, wrong. You see, people who have some knowledge of the sector are what right-wingers call "vested interests." Instead, it's apparently much more sensible to take advice on this from Treasury staff who know little of the sector other than that they went to university once, but who have full confidence that their ideology constitutes a magic toolbox equipped to offer sound advice on any public service.
So the last time National was in power, Treasury had a quick squizz at tertiary ed, decided that universities and polytechs are selling a product (education) to consumers (students), and therefore correct performance measurement = how many student consumers purchase your education product. The govt accordingly based funding on the ability to attract student enrolments.
This Perverse Incentive became known as the "bums on seats" model and had some predictable consequences: it became important that courses were popular and that they were easy enough that students didn't fail them; it was important to encroach on competitors' territories and try to lure their customers away; it was important for universities to diversify into polytechs' more popular fields of study and vice versa; it was important to direct taxpayers' money into TV ad campaigns aimed at bringing in more taxpayers' money; in fact, the only thing seemingly lacking in importance under this performance measurement regime was that students should receive a good education. I began working in the sector at the beginning of 1999 and could barely believe that a govt would pursue such lunacy. It was a positive relief when Labour was elected at the end of the year and promptly put a stop to my employer's next takeover bid.
So much for the unlamented 1990s. Few in National now would want to go back to the idiocy of bums-on-seats performance measurement, they have at least learnt that much. Unfortunately, they don't seem to have learned not to ask Treasury for advice on tertiary ed policy.
The latest performance measures have just been announced by TEC (Tertiary Education Commission). It's announced as though it's TEC's system, but in fact it's National's system, as suggested by the Treasury. TEC, being thoroughly knowledgable about the sector, counts as a "vested interest" and is therefore unwanted in the development of policy for it.
Tertiary Education Minister Stephen Joyce (the govt accepted a while back that the sector wouldn't take Anne Tolley seriously) is now measuring performance on completion rates rather than enrolments. Well, it is a better system - if only in the sense that breaking your leg is "better" than breaking your pelvis.
The idea behind this measurement is that the taxpayer is best served by tertiary ed institutions concentrating on turning school leavers into people with job qualifications. This means that institutions with young, internal, full-time students succeeding in courses that involve training for a particular career will be counted as a success. On the face of it, a laudable and sensible performance measure that few could describe as a Perverse Incentive, surely? Well, no. Because the flip side of it is that those institutions that indulge students in part-time study or extramural study, institutions that welcome mature students, re-trainers, second-chancers, people trying to fit study in around work or child-rearing, beneficiaries or prisoners trying to improve themselves and suchlike, will not only be appropriately financially punished for their contradiction of govt intent, but will be declared poor performers on a publicly available league table.
You can tell from the fact I'm grumpy about it that my institution is not looking any too flash on that league table. We're the national flagship for extramural study, which basically means we're in the shit. The Perverse Incentive is about to go into action - next year, the govt's view that extramural or part-time study is a Bad Thing will take tangible form in a serious cut in funding for my institution, and it will begin trying to divest itself of these Jonahs and replace them with full-time internal students fresh out of school. The president of our Extramural Students Society, Ralph Springett, summed it up thus: "It is ridiculous that students who avoid taking a student loan and work productively are the ones singled out as non-performers." Yes it is ridiculous, but that's Perverse Incentives - sorry, Performance Measurement for you. Welcome to another 9 years of tertiary ed buffoonery.
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