Labour Saving Devices? It’s all very well to offer the 7 year-olds of today three years of free tertiary education in 2025. The really tough question is: what are we going to teach them? Our universities and polytechnics need a massive injection of funds not only to erect the infrastructure required for free and universal tertiary education, but also to help them – and us – understand and prepare for the world that is coming.
THERE SEEMS LITTLE POINT in subsidising the post-school education of young New Zealanders if that education isn’t up to scratch. The voters need to be reassured that just because the next Labour Government will be offering up to three years of free tertiary education, this country’s tertiary institutions need no longer concern themselves about providing value for money.
Right now, New Zealand’s universities are receiving 30 percent less per student from the state than comparable universities overseas. Staff-student ratios are deteriorating, and it’s getting harder to both attract and retain the top-flight scholars this country needs. Every week another tranche of our best and our brightest departs these shores in response to teaching and research offers New Zealand can no longer match.
But, if our universities are in urgent need of a funding boost, our polytechs and wanangas are in need of even more. John Key’s National Government has not been the champion of non-university tertiary education that the sector so desperately needed. On the contrary, there has been an almost punitive aspect to the Government’s treatment of these largely vocational institutions. It began with the defunding of adult education in 2009, and it’s been downhill for the sector ever since – especially for the smaller, regional polytechnics.
On the basis of its announced policy, it would appear that Labour is gearing up to become that long-awaited champion of vocational education. Andrew Little made it clear in his State of the Nation address last Sunday that the guiding principle of Labour’s tertiary education policy is that the knowledge and skills required for a productive life should not be imparted on the basis of the recipient’s ability to pay.
He also devoted a large chunk of his speech to the dramatic (some might say devastating) changes technology is poised to bring about in the workforce. New Zealand needs to brace itself to meet these changes, and one of the best ways to do that is to make it easy for workers displaced by technology to retrain themselves.
In Denmark it is called “flexicurity”: a policy aimed at making it easier for employers to improve the profitability of their firms by replacing staff with the new generation of faster, smarter computers; while ensuring that the workers so displaced are retrained, and helped to find new employment, by the state.
Critics of Labour’s “free education” policy announcement have pointed out that what it is proposing is nowhere near as generous, nor as comprehensive, as the Danish model. Labour’s finance spokesperson, Grant Robertson, whose “Future of Work Commission” has praised the “flexicurity” concept, must be aware that those most likely to fall victim to the so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution” are professionals. It is accountants, nurses and teachers who are about to see an alarmingly large chunk of their current job descriptions handed over to artificially-intelligent machines.
In Denmark such post-industrial casualties are paid a very generous job-search allowance and signed up for re-training by the state – regardless of their educational history. For the moment, at least, Labour is restricting its offer of free post-school education to those who have yet to darken the door of a tertiary institution. Accountants, nurses and teachers need not apply.
Professionals looking to acquire the (so far) unprogrammable skills of painters, sculptors, poets, novelists, screen-writers and other creatives will have to foot the new skills bill themselves. So, too, will all those tradespeople who’ve served their time as apprentices, received their trade certificates and established thriving small businesses, only to find their skill-sets rendered superfluous by the dramatically expanding capabilities of tomorrow’s 3D printers.
It’s all very well to offer the 7 year-olds of today three years of free tertiary education in 2025. The really tough question is: what are we going to teach them? Our universities and polytechnics need a massive injection of funds not only to erect the infrastructure required for free and universal tertiary education, but also to help them – and us – understand and prepare for the world that is coming.
Because it’s looking increasingly likely to be a world in which the pursuit of knowledge, for its own sake; and the acquisition of skills, exclusively for the purposes of artistic creation; will be the only remaining vocational options – for human-beings.
And the very last political job will be to persuade the machines to pay for it all.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 5 February 2016.