Arena Williams & Sam Bookman: Access to university key to success

Students need to know they're receiving high-quality tuition and world-recognised qualifications. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Students need to know they're receiving high-quality tuition and world-recognised qualifications. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Has New Zealand spread its funding for universities too thinly? Should we instead pursue quality over the quantity of students and institutions? Two student leaders argue the Government must keep access open and stump up more money.

Graduation week at the University of Auckland has just finished. Excited graduands in robes hurry about campus; parents follow with flowers and cameras. It's a time to celebrate student achievement: the academic success that graduands represent and the hopes that we, the university community, have for them.

The students are the most important part of the place - they have the highest stake in how our universities perform. They need to know they're receiving high-quality tuition and world-recognised qualifications.

But to suggest the answer to New Zealand's falling international ranking lies in restricting access to tertiary education, as suggested in the Herald's editorial on May 2, is ill-founded.

A university should be a place for all students with the potential to succeed. If New Zealand is to progress as a society founded on principles of equality of opportunity and economic prosperity, our system must provide the best education for the greatest number of people. A university qualification is a prime indicator of economic and social success.

To restrict that opportunity to a select few runs antithetical to what makes us New Zealanders; the opportunity for a fair go. It will also reduce productivity, as some who would benefit (themselves, future employers, and society) will be denied the opportunity.

Are we really failing? To argue that New Zealand's universities are failing based on their global rankings is dangerous. Rankings are important but should be treated with caution. Much of New Zealand's fall in such rankings can be explained by developing countries such as China and Korea catching up. The metrics used by rankings, such as in the Times Higher Education supplement (THE), are weighted in favour of research yet the link between research and the quality of the education students receive is, at best, unproven. Others, such as QS, use the number of students turned away by universities as a proxy for quality. Pandering to such a metric, instead of actually enhanced quality, is likely to be a measure in futility.

What the country needs is sustained investment. Contrary to the Herald editorial, the biggest factor in the University of Auckland's slip in world rankings is not student numbers. From 2006 to 2012, Auckland's THE ranking fell from 46th to 82nd, yet student numbers increased only 9 per cent. At the same time, Government funding slowed to below the rate of inflation. Without proper investment, New Zealand academics will continue to move overseas for higher wages, research cannot be adequately carried out and students cannot receive the best tuition.

Our only path to sustainable growth is through investment in a knowledge economy. Our agricultural sector is important, but it cannot be our only source of competitive advantage on the global stage.

We must invest in human capital, and if we create a system that only allows kids from wealthy families to succeed, we're not making good decisions. Investment in tertiary education is one of the best ways to stimulate long-term economic growth, and will pay off financially and socially. Yet instead of investing in our economy, producing brighter graduates who'll stimulate knowledge-based, high-paying industries, our Government is failing us.

Raising fees, or curtailing student support, is not the answer. If universities are to be the domain of those capable of succeeding at them, instead of just those who can afford them, we must recognise a role for Government. Already, with eligibility restrictions for student loans and allowances, and the removal of the Training Incentive Allowance, and a high correlation between income and secondary school success, high-potential students are missing out.

Single parents and recent migrants have been the first affected, but the upcoming May 24 Budget threatens even more. Two suggestions have been mooted; reducing the number of students eligible for the student allowance, and increasing the rate at which workers with student loans are required to pay those loans back. Reducing access to student allowances for those most in need means those for whom tertiary education is the key to success will remain trapped in low-income jobs. Increasing the student loan repayment threshold for graduates will only serve to drive more talented students overseas, seeking higher wages. In terms of New Zealand's purchasing power parity, universities here are more expensive than in Australia. Passing the buck to students cannot deliver results.

Professor McCutcheon, writing in this paper on April 30, was right in one way. New Zealand can't sustain high student numbers, low tuition fees and top quality. If we want a society built on fairness, and graduates who can enhance our society, the Government must come to the party. If the Government, and those in the sector have ruled this out, we're in trouble.

Arena Williams is president and Sam Bookman is education vice-president of the Auckland University Students' Association.

- NZ Herald

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