Peter Fenwick: Minister's wish will take years to be granted

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The Minister of Tertiary Education Steve Joyce. Photo / NZ Herald
The Minister of Tertiary Education Steve Joyce. Photo / NZ Herald

So the Minister for Tertiary Education will force the universities to produce more engineers and information technologists. That sounds an excellent idea and the country really needs them, but I wonder if he realises some realities.

If he gives an immediate instruction, with appropriate funding, it will take probably two years for institutions to plan and acquire staff and other resources for the increased intake, a further four years until they graduate and then a year or two until they acquire the practical work-place experience. Add another year if they do an industrially desirable conjoint or advanced degree. Thus it will be at least six years before we see any increased supply, certainly not next year.

But it is even worse. How many students completing high school actually want to do engineering, etc? How many of those have the necessary scientific and mathematical background to enter university technological subjects? I suspect not many more than at present.

So we must look to the secondary schools, places where a love of science and mathematics is instilled in students. But how many secondary school teachers have an appropriate, probably graduate level, qualification in physical sciences? Probably far fewer than is desirable.

Unless a teacher is extremely dedicated, general working conditions and salaries too often make secondary teaching a less desirable employment alternative. In fact some people say that we must go back to primary schools so that pupils get to think that science is interesting. How many primary teachers have a modicum of scientific literacy? So unless we get more university entrants with appropriate interest and qualifications, the situation simply cannot improve, and that depends on the school system.

And then universities need the staff to teach them. It is strange that while commercial salaries are set "according to the market", those of universities are largely set by political fiat and are far below international norms. When I started at the university in 1972, a backbench salary was comparable to that of a mid-range lecturer. "Market comparability" means that a backbench MP, with possibly few qualifications, now earns as much as a university professor with 20-30 years' experience and an international reputation. Does the minister really want good staff in the universities?

Browbeating the universities will not solve this really serious problem. It is the consequence of decades of government indifference to education and will take at least a generation to fix, decades of serious, concerted, action.

Peter Fenwick is a former associate professor of computer science at Auckland University

- NZ Herald

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