Monday, September 5, 2016

Embedded At The New Zealand First Convention Part 3: What The Media Aren't Telling You About Tracey Martin's Tertiary Education Push

Saturday afternoon at NZF's Convention was set aside for a presentation on New Zealand First Tertiary Education Policy by spokesperson Tracey Martin. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect, but wondered privately whether it had something to do with the promised costings on free tertiary education which Tracey was widely rumoured to be pursuing.

Now to be clear, NZ First advocacy for abolishing ruinous barriers to tertiary education access in the form of spiraling fees and loan-debts for living-costs is not exactly new. I pushed for both this, a Universal Student Allowance, and debt write-off schemes for those working here in New Zealand in the 2011 Tertiary Education Policy which I prepared for that year's New Zealand First Manifesto.

But what makes Tracey's announcement on Saturday an absolute sea-change for us is something else. This is a fully-costed, comprehensively researched, and well fitted together wraparound policy set. Whereas previously, we sort of coasted through by pointing to - of all things - United Future-sourced costings for some of our tertiary policy (among other stopgap countermeasures); this time all the hard work to make sure the policy-set's viable has been prepared endogenously, and in such a way that it's not hard to look through the detail and see how the whole thing works.

But perhaps more importantly, the document with which we were presented on Saturday did something else: it directly compared and contrasted the dollar-figures to pay for what New Zealand First is proposing, against the present-day costs of the way we do student loans and allowances and all the rest of it (i.e. the machinery of tertiary education accessibility which we want to re-tread and replace) alongside it.

The exact figures, if you're interested, are $4.183 billion for the way things are now (equivalent to 1.67% of GDP); versus $4.638 billion for what New Zealand First is proposing for the future (equivalent to 1.86% of GDP).

As even somebody who failed 5th form maths twice like myself can see ... that's a comparative increase in cost of around $455 million (0.19% of GDP) - or, phrased in terms of National Party policy-priorities, a figure which is less than half of the $1.1 billion dollars per year that Bill English's "fiscally neutral" tax-cuts-and-GST-increase cost the government every single year; and one which is not too much larger than the $360 million per year which we used to receive from those assets which National flogged off earlier in the decade. It's approximately 17.5 pointless flag referendums (and three million dollars CHEAPER than the $458 million National was prepared to spend on changing our passports if 'their' flag won); or, using a more recent topical issue, about 2.5 times what it costs every year to enforce continued marijuana prohibition.

What I'm basically trying to say is: even though four hundred and fifty million sounds like a fair bit of cash (which it is) ... in the context of government programs, it's really not that huge a figure. Our existing neoliberal overlords have already demonstrated they're quite content just flat-out WASTING similar (if not inordinately larger) amounts of money - and with seriously questionable returns.

The key difference between spending several hundred million on funding a dramatically improved support for the accessibility of tertiary education in this country (and helping to keep recently-upskilled graduates both living and working here in the nation which paid for it) is that at the end of this process we actually *get* something for it other than an enduring hole in the books.

This is why I got quite annoyed on Tracey's behalf with some of the media framing around her proposal. Airing comments by Steven Joyce suggesting that the extra cost of our scheme would run into the "billions of dollars" without pointing out that the true increased cost of the scheme is a mere few hundred million dollars over the extant (and wasteful) status quo, as Jo Moir has done over at Stuff, is just plain irresponsible journalism.

Tracey has done some serious and sustained Good Work both for our Party and for the tertiary education sector generally by putting all this together. It is presumably a sign of the policy-set's strength and utility that opponents such as the Tertiary Education Minister feel they have to engage in counter-factual distortion in order to try and rubbish it.

I look forward to the thinking outlined in Tracey's latest policy push (including the concept of 'skill-debt' replacing 'financial debt'; and viewing education as an investment rather than a mere expense) permeating out further into conversations around and about the sector.

Because what we're doing right now clearly isn't working. Instead, we drive our young people overseas with ruinous debt, and then arrest them at the border for returning. We refuse to pay many less well off students who aren't being supported by their parents any minimum stipend to live on (while instead handing a modicum of money to those on the dole) - and then act surprised and tut-tut when it turns out they're borrowing to live.

If we're serious about building a smart, technologically and societally sophisticated economy going forward, then we need to be doing something different.

The policy-set outlined by Tracey Martin over the weekend represents exactly the kind of starting shot-in-the-arm which our education sector - and our young people - need in order to begin making this a reality.

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