Free education crucial to knowledge-based economy

I've had some fantastic responses to my column on the knowledge-based economy (KBE) - thanks for all your feedback.

I’ve had some fantastic responses to my column on the knowledge-based economy (KBE) — thanks for all your feedback. It seems I’ve struck a nerve and people are keen to discuss their views on the whole topic, which raises a question: why weren’t we more involved in the forums around the country which led to the government’s Bright Future policy? I saw a lot of CEOs, managing directors, industry leaders and the like, but precious few IT managers, systems administrators or educators. Surely we’re at the heart of the KBE? Television’s portrayal of the KBE was interesting as well. TV One news showed New Zealand fashions on display in London as an example of KBE, which it probably is. But in the Bright Future pack I received it doesn’t mention fashion anywhere. Admittedly, it also doesn’t mention IT very much either, which makes me wonder what the government thinks a KBE is all about. Basically it all comes down to the very heart of government’s economic policy and the fabric of the New Zealand business culture. We make things and we grow things and that’s seen as being entirely separate from social services, education policy, immigration and so on. That has to stop. We’re clearly too small a nation and too far away from our markets to let that kind of behaviour carry on for much longer. The fundamental problem seems to be routed in our education system and it’s twofold: declining perceived quality and a lack of motivation to attend. When I started at the University of Waikato in 1987 it cost me around $400 a year, plus books, accommodation and the occasional meal. My allowance for living away from home was $78 a week, and since my board was $70 that left me a whopping $8 a week for the fun things in life. It wasn’t the easiest of lives, as you can imagine, with less than a tenner a week burning a hole in my pocket, but during the summer I managed to scrounge some decent jobs to pay for things like books, travel, clothes and the occasional glass of beer, thanks mostly to the government’s willingness to pay for a share of my wages. Sadly, that all changed in the early 1990s, and in one fell swoop student loans and overdrafts were cancelled, the summer jobs dried up, fees went exponential and we moved to a new model — user pays. There were a couple of strange years before the loan scheme kicked in properly, and a number of us got crushed in the middle, but basically the government decided it couldn’t afford to keep up with the astonishing number of people trying to get into tertiary education each year. So they used cost as the inhibiting factor to staunch the flow of people into the tertiary faculties. Sheer momentum has meant the number attending has continued to rise for a few years, but at nowhere near the previous rate. This year marks the first year the number of students attending has actually levelled off and they are now sadly in decline. The other side of the coin is the belief that tertiary institutes have to pass a certain number of people to get paid, thus encouraging them to mess with the bell curve. This skewing of results will only help drive down the perception of New Zealand as a place that turns out well-trained graduates. These trends can’t be allowed to continue. "Best cost" is a phrase many of you will have heard. It’s makes good sense not to buy the cheapest product in the range. Instead, buy the one that will give you the best return on your investment. Sure, tertiary education is an expensive business and the people who seem most likely to benefit from it are those who attend. But that’s too short-sighted a view to be sustainable. It ignores the impact educating a larger percentage of the population has on our society as a whole. It ignores the impact these people have on our industrial base, on our health and social services and associated costs. It ignores the impact losing our reputation as a thoughtful, innovative bunch of people will have on our economy as a whole. Our "leaders" have announced their support for the drive to become a knowledge-based economy, yet they are not willing to front up at the polls and say: "This is going to cost us some money in the short term. If we want to have a prosperous future, we need to allow everyone in New Zealand free access to education. We need to pay now so we can reap the benefit later." Don’t just write to me about this one — write to your MPs. They need to know. Paul Brislen is Computerworld’s Y2K  reporter. He can be reached at paul_brislen@idg.co.nz, or phone: 0-9-377 902. For publication copy letters to cw_letters@idg.co.nz

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