When we send our kids to school, knowing they’ll learn something, we benefit from the education of other New Zealanders.
When we walk over a bridge or into a building and it doesn’t collapse, we’re benefiting from someone else’s education. When my appendix nearly burst a few years ago, requiring a week of intensive care in hospital, my family and I clearly benefited from others’ education.
That’s the thing about education. While it’s something that one person in particular may choose to pursue, that education ends up spilling over into our communities to the benefit of all of us.
Those benefits might look like better-designed cities, professional and compassionate healthcare or innovative new technologies. It also looks like the films and television we laugh and cry at, the music we dance to and the clothes we wear.
Education isn’t always delivered in a classroom. Our community spaces, churches, galleries, venues and theatres are hubs of knowledge sharing. Many will point out the advent of the internet — itself a product of education — has enabled all of us the ability to learn without attachment to an institution.
That said, there’s a reason we tend to organise the delivery of education intentionally, through institutions. These are the places of learning that are designed to enable best-practice research, application of the scientific method, drive robust critique and build on the country and the world’s most up-to-date knowledge.
These institutions not only serve young people seeking to progress their understanding beyond the building blocks of the compulsory sector, but the many of us who choose to retrain, upskill or pursue a passion later in life.
Universities and polytechs, like any organisation, cannot hold all of the knowledge nor expertise, but they are precisely the organisations that every nation across the world has developed and invested in to ensure access to lifelong learning and development.
That investment, though, has long been wanting in Aotearoa New Zealand. Back in the 80s and 90s, as Labour and National governments decided to slash and burn our public institutions in favour of corporate sensibility, our tertiary education funding model flipped from enabling accessible learning to counting cost and starving investment in our people and communities.
The logical consequence of such an approach is the suppression of the wages and worsening conditions of the people who work in those institutions.
It’s why several thousand university staff across all eight of our country’s universities are striking — for the first time in 20 years.
You should care because these are the people who teach and train our social workers, midwives, engineers, nurses, computer programmers, doctors and literal teachers.
Those who work in our tertiary education deliver the skills that in turn feed our primary, intermediate and high schools. It is the students of tertiary education, in all its forms, who build the homes to fix the housing crisis, research and deliver climate action, who service mental and physical health.
The privilege of being a government minister is also the responsibility of stepping in when things are tough.
Back in the early 2000s, Sir Michael Cullen stepped in on behalf of the Labour-led Government to break an impasse in tertiary education pay and conditions.
The Greens back the calls of the Tertiary Education Union to see the Government undertake those same measures today.
No one has a greater stake in the future of tertiary education than those who staff the institutions which deliver it. These staff are precisely the people who should be at the table helping decide strategies and budgets, because they’re the ones who will execute it.
If, instead, we let our tertiary education sector wither with further resourcing and job cuts, it’s all of us who are the poorer for it.
Chlöe Swarbrick, Green Party, is the MP for Auckland Central.