The coming election – Part 4: National’s policy

Early voting starts in three days.

The National Party didn’t release a tertiary education policy. Rather, the approach has been to include a tertiary education angle in announcements in other areas of policy.  So the policy on tuition fees is a footnote in the tax and finance policy.  The proposed boost to technology education is an integral part of the policy for the technology industry.  And the SkillStart initiative announced on 28 September was the centrepiece of a broader skills and employment release.

It’s a set of components that add up to a policy programme. Let’s look at them in turn, the more straightforward ones first.

Fees free

Like Labour, National would scrap the second and third phases of the fees-free policy.  Unlike Labour, National would also scrap the existing first year fees-free. That’s very sensible.  Fees-free doesn’t have a measurable effect on access to tertiary education.  It’s a high-cost, deadweight, regressive policy. There are far more pressing priorities. 

There will be a political cost in removing the existing first year’s entitlement to fees-free.  That is because free tertiary education was designed to appeal to middle-class parents and grandparents who want to protect their children/grandchildren from debt.  Those parents and grandparents cast votes that National would want to capture.  But with Labour having walked the policy back, with wide public recognition that fees-free was ineffective and with public understanding that the pandemic has reordered everyone’s priorities, the risk is less and it’s a risk that National is evidently happy to take.

Verdict?  A good move.

Restarting international education

Unlike most of the other components of National’s package, a restart to international education has been in National’s thinking – and on its website – for months. More recently, the party has released a more comprehensive border protection policy that places international students (alongside essential workers) as a priority two group for entry to the country, behind returning New Zealanders but ahead of international tourists. 

It’s an obvious priority, one that is essential to providers, especially (but not only) universities and language schools.

Under this policy, students would be free to book a place in an approved managed isolation facility.  Tertiary providers would be able to enter arrangements with officials of the new border protection agency and accommodation providers (probably including their own accommodation facilities) to ensure that incoming students can be brought in.

It sounds simple of course.  In practice, less so – one overriding principle of National’s border policy is to manage border crossing while meeting safety requirements.  We all know from the many high-profile breaches of managed isolation that this is not nearly as straightforward as it sounds.

Verdict?  Sensible and balanced but not nearly as easy as it is made to sound.

The reform of vocational education – RoVE  

National has committed to reversing government’s RoVE programme within its first 100 days in government.  National argues the reforms are “…expensive and disruptive” and an “overreaction” to the financial problems of the polytechnic sector.  Rather, the party wants to direct “… efforts and resourcing towards frontline education and training, not into establishing a centralised bureaucracy”. They would scrap the NZIST, disestablish Workforce Development Councils, Regional Skills Leadership Groups and Te Taumata Aronui, restore industry training organisations and return “local decision making and remaining assets” to regional polytechnics.  It seems that the only element of RoVE not slated for removal is the (yet to appear) unified vocational education funding system.

The problem with that is that the current system has not worked well for many years.  The split of vocational education into two streams has led to tensions and inflexibility. There have been questions about the quality of some industry training.  The system needed serious work.  Contrary to the assertion in National’s policy documents, the financial plight of the polytechnics was not the sole reason for the reforms. 

That’s not say that the current blueprint is perfect.  But nor are there signs of failure.  Reforms of this scale and complexity are time-consuming and inevitably expensive.  Reversing the reforms doesn’t solve the original, underlying problems; rather, it risks triggering a new programme of reorganisation and fresh problem-solving.  It would deflect the sector’s attention from its mission in the same way that the RoVE reforms have.  

Verdict?  Very risky.

Technology education

National’s Technology 2030 policy sets a range of goals for New Zealand’s technology industry. To achieve those goals, to increase the scale and the capability of the technology industry workforce, it would be necessary to strengthen technology education and to make it well-connected to industry. 

To that end, National wants to:

  • create a set of STEM scholarships targeted at low-decile schools
  • create a partnership school with a STEM focus
  • reverse the Budget 2019 decision to phase out funding for the ICT Graduate Schools (which sought to deepen the relationship between academic work in information technology and technology firms)
  • give preferential visa treatment to international students who complete ICT degrees in New Zealand
  • set up a PhD scholarship programme that would try to attract 50 ICT PhD students to New Zealand.

Verdict? Without a boost to ICT education, the ambitious goals National wants to set for the technology industry would fail.  So, the underlying thinking is good.  And nothing in this package seems wrong.  But is it enough?  Would it all work?  Would it spark the really deep and productive university/industry relationship that is needed to drive the sort of innovation National is seeking?  The history of targeted scholarship programmes – especially undergraduate scholarships – makes for very depressing reading; most suffer from poor take-up and most result in deadweight spending.   So, the goals are right.  But are the methods?

Skills and employment

The final and most important piece of the puzzle is the party’s policy on skills and employment.  This policy addresses the challenges that we face as we move further into a depressed labour market.  It draws together a range of existing and new programmes designed to help businesses, to strengthen the focus of the welfare system on getting young people into work and to help young people develop skills for work.  It includes initiatives like the existing skills hubs, existing programmes like trades academies and the current government’s He Poutama Rangatahi programme. 

And at the heart of that policy is the flagship SkillStart initiative.

Under SkillStart, the government will pay providers a $4,000 per student bonus – on top of the ordinary enrolments-linked funding – for each student who:

  • enrols in a qualifying programme[1], having been made unemployed or having been on a benefit for three months, and
  • gets a full-time job within three months of completing the programme, and
  • manages to hold the job beyond the 90-day trial period.

The programme is costed at $120 million, meaning 30,000 successful placements in work, and 30,000 bonus payments.

It’s hard not to admire the intention and the focus of SkillStart.  It creates strong incentives on providers to ensure their programmes are work-focused and well-linked to employers. It targets learners in need.  But it will be very, very complex administratively – it will require very smart system design!

The policy statement makes it clear that SkillStart is not for school leavers. Instead, those who leave school with low achievement or poor employment prospects would be directed to the Youth Guarantee programme which National’s policy paper describes as “highly successful”.  That description is simply wrong.  YG is a failed programme.  Every evaluation of YG shows that it fails against its most important goal – it doesn’t help people into work.  YG fails because it doesn’t do what SkillStart sets out to do.

Verdict? SkillStart is well-intentioned and could work well – provided the detailed design lives up to its aims and if the complex administration works.  But the skills package, as a whole, has a real gap; there isn’t anything to help the many young people who leave school with low achievement and poor prospects.  YG, as is, just doesn’t cut it.  YG needs urgent redesigning.  It needs to be more employer-focused, more employment-focused.  More like SkillStart.  National’s skills policy folk would be advised to read this excellent piece on what works in the design of programmes for this target group and then rethink the design of YG.

An overall verdict?

Restarting international education, cancelling fees-free, the technology industry, and skills for employment. National has identified a small set of high priority areas for action.  Many of the proposed solutions are promising, (but not all are guaranteed to succeed).  That group of initiatives gives a credible centre for the package.  But reversing the RoVE reforms is a risk.  And National should take the blame (rather than claim the credit) for the under-performing YG programme.  

[1] The policy lays out a set of conditions for SkillStart, most not touched on in this summary.  In particular, to qualify for SkillStart bonus funding, programmes must be between 3 and 12 months in length.

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