Fee-free uni not best use of money

February 5, 2016

Martin Robbins was in favour of fee-free tertiary education but he’s found that not only could scrapping fees be a terrible idea, there’s also a far better place to put the money:

For a long time I hated tuition fees. I hated them for moral reasons and for selfish ones. I obviously wasn’t too thrilled to pay them. If I’m honest, it felt like a tax on effort, on intelligence, on wanting to make a contribution to society. ‘The country will benefit from me and people like me,’ I smugly and conveniently believed, ‘and so my education should be a taxpayer investment.’

A better reason to hate them was, I believed, the deterrent effect that they would have on poorer people entering university. If you make it more expensive to get a degree then naturally that’s going to favour people with more money. . . 

There’s just one teeny tiny problem. The evidence shows that if you want to invest ten billion reducing inequality, the university system is about the worst place you can possibly put it. In fact it’s such a bad idea that it could have the exact opposite effect. . . 

He shows that more people from disadvantaged areas are going to university in spite of fees.

. . .In the last decade, in spite of rising tuition fees, students are more likely to apply for university, poorer students are more likely to apply for university, and the inequality gap – while still a problem – has closed. We’re not talking about small debatable improvements here – these are massive changes. . . 

Fees are a relatively small part of the cost of tertiary education and in New Zealand taxpayers already give a subsidy of about 70% towards them.

The truth is that the rot of inequality sets in years before a pupil reaches the age to be thinking about university. Research published in 2014 by the Centre for Analysis of Youth Transitions – and a stack of similar studies before that – tell us exactly where.. .

The high ability kids start off about the same, but over time the rot sets in. The gap grows and grows, with a dramatic decline for the less advantaged kids between key stage 2 (7-11) and key stage 4 (14-16). The same gap opens up between the average ability kids too, to such a large extent that by the time the four groups of children reach their GCSEs, the average ability rich kids are pulling ahead of the high ability poor kids, who by the age of 16 are already stuck in a long term rut that will affect how the rest of their lives unfold.

So taking all of the above into account, the impact of tuition fees to date and the evidence about where inequality sets in among children, I think I’m pretty clear now on where I’d like to see extra cash spent. . . 

The greatest need for more money isn’t relieving tertiary students of the cost of the small proportion of fees they now pay.

The greatest need is much earlier in the education system.

Pupils who succeed at secondary level will be able to choose whether to take on tertiary study, those who don’t won’t only not have that choice they will have very limited opportunities for work as well.

UPDATE:

The NZ Herald editorial says fee-free tertiary education is an expensive fix which has little purpose:

A universal entitlement to three years’ free tertiary education has overwhelming public appeal. Whether it is in the public interest is another question. The policy is expensive: $1.2 billion when fully implemented.

That is a considerable lump of public spending. As always when something of this magnitude is proposed, we should not look at its merits in isolation. Governments do not have infinite budgets and there is a limit to the taxation an economy can provide and remain healthy.

Labour needs to be asked, is this the most worthwhile use of $1.2 billion Is it even the most worthy use of funds allocated to education?

This question should be asked of every dollar that is spent.

Many professionals (outside the tertiary sector at least) would say raising funding of pre-school education is more socially urgent and productive than relieving school-leavers of an obligation to contribute to the cost of their qualifications.

 

University student associations have complained about course fees and loans to cover them since they were introduced. But many thousands of graduates have paid their fees and repaid their loans over the past 20 years.

Tertiary education has seen spectacular growth over that period, attracting foreign fee-paying students as well as meeting New Zealanders’ needs. Why change the funding system now?

Or to put it another way, what problem is this policy designed to fix? Labour’s leader presents it as an answer to the frequent and unpredictable career changes people will need in the workforce of the future. But this “future” has been present for many years now and there has been no sign the costs of retraining have become a problem.

So long as the economy remains strong and apprenticeships are available, as they are, it seems it cannot be too hard to acquire new skills.

If the wage drop creates difficulties for those with dependants, for instance, targeted assistance would be more effective than a costly new universal entitlement.

The economy is strong in large part because public spending is under control. Expensive proposals that waste money purely for political gain could put the country’s prosperity in peril.

The return to surplus after the previous Labour government had, in the words of Michael Cullen, spent the lot, was made more difficult by the GFC and the Canterbury earthquakes.

Forecasts aren’t optimistic about surpluses in the short term.

Any increase in spending must be directed where the need is greatest and it will achieve the most – that’s not making tertiary education completely fee-free.

 


“Free” for whom?

February 1, 2016

Labour has unveiled what’s being called a ‘free” tertiary education plan.

“Free” for whom?

I was one of those who supposedly had a “free” tertiary education. There were far fewer students per taxpayer then but people on modest incomes were paying 60% (or was it 66%?) in tax.

The taxpayer already covers 70% of the cost of study. Labour’s policy would save those students who benefit in the short term but they and all other taxpayers would pay more in the long term.

Labour’s supposed constituency of lower skilled workers won’t be enthusiastic about paying more so the children of better-off families can save a bit on their education whether or not what they study is what the country needs.

New Zealand does have a skills shortage in some areas but this policy doesn’t target those shortages, it’s across the board.

Everyone, including those working hard to pay off loans already incurred will be paying more tax to further subsidise the education of people who won’t necessarily be trained in skills we need and some of those who are won’t necessarily stay in New Zealand once qualified.

There are national-good benefits for a better educated population which is why the taxpayer is already very generous in its support of tertiary education.

And the national-good is not an argument for being even more generous, especially when this policy would increase the quantity of students while doing nothing to improve the quality of the education they get.

If there is money to spare  it would be better to be targeted where it will do most good, for example an extension of the existing funding for writing-off student loans for vets, doctors, nurses and others who work in hard-to-staff regions.

But the greatest need in New Zealand is the long-tail of underachievers who fail long before they get near any higher education.

P.S.

Labour hasn’t put much effort in to winning the Invercargill seat in recent years. This policy will help the incumbent MP, National’s Sarah Dowie, retain her seat by doing away with the advantage the Southland Institute of technology has in attracting students with its zero-fees policy.


Principals suggest school closures

October 5, 2015

School principals are talking sense on the best use of scarce funds:

. . . Principals told Radio New Zealand’s Insight programme that earthquake strengthening, leaky buildings and roll growth meant there was not enough property funding to go around, even though the government was expected to spend $6 billion over next 10 years addressing the issues.

With money short, they said, the government should consider closing schools instead of fixing them.

Principal of Te Mata School in Havelock North Mike Bain questions whether having multiple schools with low rolls promotes the best educational outcomes.

“You’ve got schools of under 100 that are spending a couple of hundred thousand on a new library, or classroom modernisation, or even a complete rebuild – don’t know that that’s the best spend of the money,” he said.

“I’m not advocating that we should have super schools where suddenly everyone goes, but when you’ve got multiple schools of less than 50 kids, is that promoting the best educational outcome for kids?” . . 

The number of children at a school isn’t necessarily an indication of the quality of the education it provides and big isn’t always better. But if pupils wouldn’t have to travel too far, it is usually better educationally and better use of money to have them at one bigger school than several smaller ones.

The Education Ministry’s property business case indicates school reorganisations might be considered in some areas.

It said significant roll drops in Gisborne, Tasman, West Coast, Manawatu-Whanganui and Hawke’s Bay would affect the shape of the school network in those areas.

But Kim Shannon of the Education Ministry’s infrastructure unit said the current property problems would not prompt school closures.

“Property is never the issue why you close down a school. That will always be educationally-driven and it will always be about the education needs of that community.”

School closures are usually contentious. But in my experience it’s often people who no longer have children at a school who fight hardest for it to stay open while parents of most pupils opt for what’s best for the education of their children which can be closing or merging with an other school.

Mike Williams, head of Pakuranga College and a member of the Secondary Principals Association, said the government should think about closing and merging schools.

“We have too many schools and so we have a lot of infrastructure that is very badly utilised. In high growth areas, yes, we’re having to build new classrooms, but there are classrooms all round the country that aren’t used, we have schools with very few students in them.”

Mr Williams said no community wanted to lose its school, but nationally that attitude was not sustainable.

PPTA Principals’ Council president Allan Vester said the government had always found it hard to close schools in the face of strong local opposition.

“There’s lots of communities that actually rationalisation needs to occur. There are more schools than are needed in an area, but it’s politically so difficult to make those changes.”

Mr Vester said the ministry knew where there were too many schools and not enough children, but found it hard to intervene.

Labour is still loathed in some areas because of the way then-Education Minister Trevor Mallard used a sledge-hammer approach to school closures more than a decade ago.

But when a school roll starts dropping, parents start taking their children elsewhere and it is possible with the  right approach to convince those who remain that a merger or closure will result in a school that better meets the educational needs of the pupils.


Quote of the day

August 20, 2015

As Education Minister I have a clear goal. I want every kid to receive a great education. For that to happen every school has to be a great school.Hekia Parata


Quote of the day

August 13, 2015

Metro United Way's photo.

Students who are loved at home,  come to school to learn, and students who aren’t, come to school to be loved. Nicholas A. Ferroni.


Quote of the day

July 10, 2015

. . . all high performing countries understand that excellent teachers are the key to lifting performance across the board. That’s why, whenever they have to make a choice between smaller classes and better teachers, high performing education systems will always opt for better teachers. . . .Dr Muriel Newman


Govt report card on BPS

July 7, 2015

The government has released a report card on its Better Public Service targets:

More young people are achieving higher qualifications, welfare dependency continues to fall and Kiwis are doing more of their government transactions digitally, Deputy Prime Minister Bill English and State Services Minister Paula Bennett say.

The Government today published the latest update of progress against the ten challenging targets set three years ago by the Prime Minister.

“There are now 42,000 fewer children living in a benefit dependent household than there were three years ago. That’s more than the combined populations of Masterton and Levin,” Mr English says.

“Today’s results confirm the Government is making continued improvements to some of the really difficult issues that affect our communities and families, however progress in other areas is slower.

“We are getting a better understanding of the most vulnerable New Zealanders, and we’re willing to pay a bit more upfront to change their lives, because what works for the community also works for the Government’s books.”

Mrs Bennett says the BPS results targets were designed to drive a positive change in the public service and signal a willingness to try new things and work across agencies to have more of an impact in people’s lives.

“Significant progress has been made since the Prime Minister first set the targets in 2012,” Mrs Bennett says.

Since the targets were introduced:

  • participation in Early Childhood Education has increased from 94.7 per cent to 96.1 per cent
  • the proportion of immunised 8-month olds has increased from 84 per cent to 92.9 per cent
  • there has been a 14 per cent decrease in people being hospitalised for the first time with rheumatic fever
  • the trend in the number of children and young people experiencing substantiated physical abuse has flattened, after previously being on an upward trajectory
  • the proportion of 18-year olds who achieve a NCEA Level 2 qualification has increased from 74.3 per cent to about 81.1 per cent
  • the proportion of 25 to 34 year olds with a qualification at Level 4 or above has increased from 51.4 per cent to 54.2 per cent
  • total crime, violent crime and youth crime have dropped 17.6 per cent, 9.1 per cent and 37.3 per cent respectively
  • the rate of reoffending has dropped 9.6 per cent
  • there has been a net reduction of 16 percent in business effort when dealing with government agencies
  • 45.8 per cent of government service transactions are now completed digitally, up from 30.4 per cent in 2012.

“We set these targets to stretch the public services to get better results from the more than $70 billion we spend each year,” Mrs Bennett says. “We have always said that some of them will be challenging.

“For example, reducing rheumatic fever remains difficult, but progress has been made. The previously increasing trend for assaults on children has been successfully flattened, but more needs to be done to achieve the target.

“We are making progress in many cases by working with individuals and families to develop services better suited to their needs,” she says.

The government deserves credit for setting targets against which progress can be measured, for working for the most vulnerable and being prepared to spend more upfront to solve long-standing problems.

But these targets aren’t just about the government, they’re about people served by public servants and those public servants who are working to meet the targets.

Education minister Hekia Parata gives credit where it’s due:

Today’s Better Public Service (BPS) update showing the Government is on track to achieve its goal of lifting the proportion of 18-year-olds with NCEA  Level 2 is a tribute to the hard work and professionalism of teachers and principals, says Education Minister Hekia Parata. . .

These targets aren’t necessarily destinations, many are staging posts in a journey towards better public services and better outcomes for the people who use them.

The  report is here.
John Key's photo.


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