Time to tick TEC off?

Question for 10 marks: "What is the point of the Tertiary Education Commission?" Discuss.

For an extra 20 marks: You are Education Minister. The commission has been found sorely wanting and the sector is clamouring for immediate action. Your task is to redesign the commission into a more agile, streamlined organisation which better understands the pressures on tertiary education institutions. Detail how you would do that.

Avid consumers of news will have noticed the recent discussions about how various political parties might deal with some government agencies if they find themselves in power after next month’s election.

Unfortunately, too much of this debate has been bordering on the jingoistic, particularly the ill thought-out comments from Act New Zealand leader David Seymour about what his party might do to the Ministry of Pacific Peoples, and presumably other ministries representing minority groups, if it had its way.

One government department which definitely seems overdue for a good shake-up is the Tertiary Education Commission, which supposedly is meant to support and monitor universities, wānanga and Te Pūkenga–New Zealand Institute of Skills and Technology.

According to its website, the commission leads the government’s relationship with the tertiary education sector and invests about $3 billion a year to support the system. It wants to ensure there is "confidence in the stability" of the sector and minimise risks to the Crown.

The site also says TEC provides guidance to "strengthen performance" at institutions and "help them to address specific issues".

For most people, the word "support" has more than just a financial meaning. It means asking what the problem or problems are and doing something to resolve them in a timely and accommodating fashion.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the current financial woes of some of our universities, including the University of Otago, the commission appears to have had some kind of empathy bypass. While Otago, Victoria University of Wellington, Massey University, Auckland University of Technology, and Te Pūkenga stare down the barrels of their own unique financial crises and lay-off their staff, TEC appears to stand aloof and not want to get its hands dirtied by the whole messy business of funding.

Worse than that, the commission is making things even more difficult for these struggling establishments. In a move which appears to come straight out of a Yes, Prime Minister manual on how best to deliver bamboozling bureaucratic balderdash, TEC is not going to disburse millions of dollars it had pledged to those institutions because they are not making enough money. Huh?

The University of Otago graduation parade on Saturday.
Photo: ODT files
The commission decided funding for those institutions will be cut by $107 million — $51.8m this year and the remainder next year — because, as it told Education Minister Jan Tinetti, they were forecast to enrol fewer students this year than the commission had agreed to fund them for.

The briefing said TEC trimmed funding when enrolments were less than 99% of what it had agreed to pay for, and it had disregarded specific requests from Otago and VUW that funding not be chopped.

A suggestion the threshold for enrolment-based funding be lowered by perhaps a couple of percentage points would require Cabinet approval, TEC’s briefing to Ms Tinetti said.

The Tertiary Education Union is bang-on when it says it looks like the commission wants to "cut its way out of a problem in tertiary education that they have created".

The union also says quite correctly that when so many institutions in the sector are gripped by funding problems, the problem clearly isn’t their fault — it is actually the fault of their funder, the commission, and of the funding model.

And that while TEC promotes itself as ensuring resourcing is adequate for the provision of quality teaching, research and skills-based learning, it clearly isn’t acting as any kind of advocate for the sector.

Protest Otago Action Group spokesman Dr Olivier Jutel coined the situation a "really perverse austerity-driven money-go-round" and says the outcome shows the bums-on-seats funding model is broken.

What a weird system this is, to punish academic organisations for being in financial trouble by further eroding their finances.

Imagine an education system based on the same premise — that you only reward those succeeding and take money or incentives away from those struggling.

It doesn’t bear thinking about.