Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Tertiary courses are a dogs’ breakfast—and Steven Joyce ain’t gonna change that

Wrestling with the explosion of degrees in such pursuits as Lithuanian Pottery, Zen Origami and the Semiology of Waiata, Steven Joyce is going to have to confront the reason for that explosion: government funding. What he’s going to have to confront, but won’t, is Milton Friedman’s four rules on spending money--which PJ O’Rourke put this way:

There are only four ways in which you can spend money.

  1. You spend your money on yourself. You're motivated to get the thing you want most at the best price. This is the way middle-aged men haggle with Porsche dealers.
  2. You spend your money on other people. You still want a bargain, but you're less interested in pleasing the recipient of your largesse. This is why children get underwear at Christmas.
  3. You spend other people's money on yourself. You get what you want but price no longer matters. The second wives who ride around with the middle-aged men in the Porsches do this kind of spending at Neiman Marcus.
  4. You spend other people's money on other people. And in this case, who gives a shit?

I can offer a graduate diploma (and an audience with Stephen Joyce) to anyone who can work out which of those four corresponds to the way tertiary education is presently funded—i.e., with a virtual voucher system—and why, therefore, the enrolment calendars of NZ’s tertiary institutions look more like Neiman Marcus on a bender than places to kick-start a career.

Frankly, it’s time to reflect on the mess governments have made of tertiary education, and are about to make again. Because there are no shortcuts.

When you’re throwing around money at students, as governments have been doing, there are no ways to limit the waste--and Joyce is trying to piss up a stick if he thinks he can.  In the absence of having students pay themselves for what they value—which would truly determine which courses were worth the candle—all he’s left with is some form of command-and-control, which as even Labour tertiary education spokesman Maryan Street recognises, is bound to fail:

“Hitting tertiary education providers with funding penalties for high student drop out and fail rates [which is the specific type of cammand-and-control Stephen Joyce has just announced] will put teachers under pressure to give passes even when they were not deserved.”

And when a Labour tertiary education spokesman recognises stupidity for what it is, its got to be really pretty damn stupid.

So I counsel reflection on those rules of spending; reflection on the failure of our virtual voucher system; and reflection on the increasingly obvious truth that as long as state and school remain unseparated, we may continue to expect the various dogs' breakfasts that we keep being served up.


  1. the first comment over at dim post is hilarious(ly depressing):

    "exactly. Universities are not like schools where the State has a duty to ensure kids are educated even against their will."

  2. Yes I agree that universities should receive no government support or funding at all.

    In fact their academic independence is hideously undermined when they accept government funding.

  3. I understand your point that government shouldn't fund education, but if it does, which seems likely, it is feasible to use incentives to ensure a reaosnable level of completions and there are ways to make it work - you set thesholds relatively low so that you get rid of the worst performing courses without changing everyone else's behaviour, and you put places in check to avoid grade inflation. The alternative, giving out funding only on the basis of enrolment, is unlikely to get better outcomes.

  4. Dave

    We tried employing some recent graduates. One was good (not because of what he'd learned at the university though, he could have had the advantage of three years income with no debt had he gone straight into gainful employment), the rest turned out to be poor, even useless. To a large extent what they had leaned in high school and uni was a net negative. I do not want to have to pay for that type of result. No-one else should be forced to either. The government should not be involved in education in any way shape or form.



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