Tertiary fees and simple minds, Alistair Shaw

Cultural Politics and the University in Aotearoa/New Zealand
Michael Peters (ed)
Dunmore Press
ISBN 0 864 69306 0

Investing in Minds: the Economics of Higher Education in New Zealand
Sholeh A Maani
VUW Institute of Policy Studies
ISBN 0 908 93511 0

In different ways, both these books are disappointing, in failing to contribute significantly to the debate that they were intended for – the future of tertiary education in the light of the imminent Tertiary Review of Higher Education in New Zealand.

The Peters’-edited Cultural Politics fails the most in its avowed intention. The blurb on the back reads:

The neo-liberal marketisation and privatisation of the Western University over the last decade has threatened the very survival of the University with its traditional freedoms and institutional autonomy … Against this background and in the year of the Tertiary Review, some of New Zealand’s leading academics investigate the cultural politics of the University, focusing on Aotearoa/New Zealand.

Unfortunately, only a couple of the chapters contribute to the debate on neo-liberal marketisation and privatisation [of education] and in particular the Tertiary Review. In addition, the book suffers greatly from the lag of two-and-a-half years between being prepared and presented as papers to the 1995 Winter Lecture Series at the University of Auckland and publication.

The fact that it is a strange collection is revealed right from the foreword by Bruce Jesson, entitled “The Role of the Intellectual is to Defend the Role of the Intellectual”. This seems to consist largely of an attack on intellectuals, mostly for not being intellectual enough, yet suffers from the same affliction with massive gaps in its logic.

Peters’ own introduction to the book – “The University in Crisis” – is useful for anyone wanting to get to grips with the issues facing education in the Tertiary Review and is accordingly the only contribution directly addressing the issues likely to come up in the debate. It has clearly been written far more recently than the pieces it introduces. Unfortunately, Peters then pontificates about his favourite fellow post-modernists Jacques Derrida and Jean-Francois Lyotard. It is hard to see how these French theorists fit into the debate on the Tertiary Review.

Visiting United States-based academic Timothy Luke’s chapter on “Political Correctness” is fascinating in its identification of “Corporate Correctness” as a far greater threat to our universities than some supposed “left-wing” Mafia preventing discussion on race, gender and sexuality. While useful in responding at one level to attacks on the University, it misses the point about political correctness itself. “Politically correct” describes a political perspective so dominant that one is not entitled to challenge it – in New Zealand one is “politically incorrect” unless one has a pathological level of support for neo-liberalism and a corresponding belief in the market. So while “political correctness” stifles debate, what is politically correct in New Zealand also constitutes an attack on the creation of knowledge and accordingly on the fundamental purpose of the University.

If there’s a chapter that is particularly disappointing it is the one by Jane Kelsey. Not because it would not have been illuminating when written, and in fact it was when I first read it more than two years ago, but because it is so dated. “The Globalisation of Tertiary Education”, as her chapter is titled, is happening so quickly that her analysis of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) has been completely superseded by the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI). Since Kelsey has written more recently on globalisation it would have been more useful to include some of that material.

The warning in Kelsey’s chapter is still important though: given the New Zealand Government’s insane desire to sign up to all available international free trade agreements covering “private enterprise”, the more the tertiary education system is privatised, the more likely it is that New Zealand will lose control of its tertiary education system to foreign corporates. Her contribution is worth reading for this analysis, one that can be applied to other free-trade agreements.

The third chapter is by Nicholas Tarling. “Word Watching: Slip, Slide, Perish” is a wonderful piece which we at the Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association decided to make available to all our committee representatives so that they can he aware of the dangers and idiocy of “management-speak”:

It is often a matter of power. If you can make people talk your language, you have an advantage: your power will be amplified, your writ extended, your voice raised. You have in some measure settled the terms of the debate.

Tarling’s writing is full of little gems:

If students pay fees it does not make them clients or customers: it makes them paying students. And if they are to be consumers, it is not clear how they can be products, too, to which value can be added (conceivably without effort on their part).

Peter Roberts, Paul Spoonley and Andrew Sharp add little to the Tertiary Review debate although Spoonley’s piece at least is interesting. His work on post-colonialism shows the importance of New Zealand having its own direction for academic work, and the importance of the humanities in dealing with human issues. It is important too for its challenge to post-modernism, such as that expressed in the following quote from Hartsock:

Why is it that just at the moment when so many of us who have been silenced begin to demand the right to name ourselves, to act as subjects rather than objects of history, that just then the concept of subjecthood becomes problematic?

Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s contribution provides further proof that the advertising of the book bears little relation to its content but it is still an excellent piece on the politics of being a Maori woman academic. The difficulties of working in an institution of the coloniser – which impact on both the institution and the Maori woman academic – the gendered nature of the histories of colonisation and the decolonisation struggle are well traversed and neatly presented. The only connection with the Tertiary Review though is the unanswered question: what the plans for wholesale commercialisation – that is current Government policy – would do to the ability of Maori to continue to use the academy as a vehicle in the decolonisation process.

The final chapter is by Michael Peters, entitled “Performance, Post-Industrial Society and the Future of the University”. This, like his introduction, addresses the issues to be raised by the Tertiary Review process. His detailing of the “reform” process and identification of the use of accountability mechanisms to undermine the nature of the University are fairly straightforward:

Education has been commodified economically in the guise of administrative change and the groundwork laid for government to ease itself out of the provision of higher education, paradoxically, with greater power to intervene in the internal affairs of individual institutions.

It is interesting to note in his tracing of the dangerous administrative changes that they were clearly in evidence under the Fourth Labour Government in the (Picot) Report on Post-Compulsory Education and Training in New Zealand (1988):

it is abundantly clear that the model of accountability developed here is “managerialist” in orientation, heavily emphasising an economic perspective which centres around questions concerning the control of assets/ resources and a technocratic measurement of performance at the sectorial, institutional and departmental levels.

It is also clearly shown by comparing international moves that – far from the belief that New Zealand is out in front with its “reforms” – the agenda is being determined elsewhere, with proposals in papers generated by the OECD being slavishly followed by New Zealand bureaucrats. This is extremely worrying, given that:

[i]n the realm of education, … the policy discourse has changed profoundly in Europe over the last five years and … the ethic of collective social responsibility has entirely disappeared.

From here Peters takes off on what amounts to a flight through some post-modernist verbiage on the university under post-industrialism. Typically for such an approach, it doesn’t come up with any suggestions as to where universities should be going. Strangely, given the title of the book, there is no attempt even to provide a cultural defence of the university. Disappointing because in the face of the latest wave of attacks on tertiary education, encapsulated in the Tertiary Review, it is not enough for us to say – as Lyotard does – that the prime pedagogical task is an apprenticeship to resistance: We must also say what the university is for.

This collection doesn’t represent the offering to the Tertiary Review debate that the contributors could have provided. It is as if its publication and association with the Review is simply expeditious: bringing the book out in late 1997, while there is a debate on the future of tertiary education going on in New Zealand, seems designed to increase sales but not understanding. Useful and interesting though this book may be in places, in the final analysis one can’t help but find it disappointing.


While Cultural Politics is ultimately unclear on what the university is for, Sholeh Maani’s Investing in Minds: The Economics at Higher Education in New Zealand is far clearer: the university is for increasing an individual’s and society’s human capital. Yet it is also not as useful as it might be to the debate on the Tertiary Review.

Like the Peters book it claims to make a contribution to the debate on tertiary education policy. Its publication and critical review at seminars held at Victoria, Auckland and Lincoln Universities are meant to be part of “extending its availability to a wider audience”. Unfortunately for this goal, it is at best a textbook and anyone other than the extremely economically literate would find it a very difficult read.

Accordingly, it will make little contribution to the debate because it won’t be read by anyone outside those with a narrow academic interest. It also fails in that it simply amounts to the application of Human Capital Theory to tertiary education fees, loans and allowances policies in New Zealand, and correspondingly an analysis of the rates of return for investment in education. It could have done with some analysis on whether or not Human Capital Theory was appropriate at all – are we educated purely so we contribute to the economy or for other reasons? Maani flits over this as an aside, but still only within the narrow constraints of Human Capital Theory, and refers to non-economic returns from education as “externalities”, still concentrated as contributions to the economy, cementing the flawed assumption that education is for production.

The suggestion that the political, social, historical and sociological aspects of the economy can be removed from its analysis is the largest failing of modern economics. There are some clear examples of where this failing takes Maani, such as her apparent confusion over living allowances, available only to students from the poorest backgrounds, which she treats as a fee subsidy. A vast difference from the reality where students know well the difference between borrowing for course costs and borrowing to survive.

More confusion develops when she finds that the returns to a Bachelor degree compared with School Certificate have increased over time. She considers this to be “compatible with increased student participation despite the introduction of fees”. She ignores the massive credential inflation since the “massification” of tertiary education in the mid-1980s. School Certificate, even before it was abolished, didn’t get you a job any longer. One suspects that the returns at the bottom shrank, not that the returns at the top of the educational tree expanded.

Maani’s studies show that loans – even at current fee levels – will burden ex-students, particularly women, with large debts for most, if not all, of their lives. Despite this, she comes across as an enthusiastic although unpersuasive supporter of the Student Loan Scheme.

Maani’s work has already been used against students, with University of Auckland administrators claiming during the 1997 fee-setting process that because she shows that there are, on average, positive private financial returns to tertiary education, the University was entitled to increase fees. This ignores what she identifies as positive social returns to tertiary education, other than financial ones. The idea of using the average private economic returns to tertiary education for fee-setting is attractive to simple minds but is not substantiated here.

The narrowness of her approach and the limited appeal of a textbook-style publication mean that, for totally different reasons from Cultural Politics, Investing in Minds will not make the public contribution it could. This is a pity, for there are some elements of worthy research here, but since public policy in New Zealand is dominated by a confused use of economics, maybe the book is actually best left where it can do the least harm.   

Alistair Shaw is President of tie Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association.

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