English quizzed over tertiary funding

A business event in Auckland turned out to be a major challenge for finance minister Bill English as he was repeatedly questioned on issues relating to tertiary education funding, student debts recovery and returning to surplus.

Massey University and the Auckland Chamber of Commerce hosted ‘Finance 2012,’ at which he was the guest speaker on February 23.

Albany Students’ Association president Stephan van Heerden asked Mr English about New Zealand’s newest export industry and how tertiary education funding fitted into the government’s overall plans for creating a sustainable economy. “Tertiary funding has gone down in the time that National has been in government and student debt is now at around $16 billion. I understand that the Government’s priority right now is strengthening the economy, but I would like to see education move up the list of priorities as an educated population goes hand in hand with a productive economy,” Mr van Heerden said.

Mr English cautioned against ‘over-engineering’ the education process because 60% of New Zealanders end up in jobs that have no relevance to their qualification.

Mr van Heerden said that graduates may be taking any job they can get in New Zealand or go overseas, just to pay off their debt.

Mr English said the rationale for offering New Zealanders minority stakes in four energy companies and Air New Zealand was to allow the government ‘to invest in other public assets like modern schools and hospitals, without having to borrow in volatile overseas markets.’

“Our political opponents need to honestly explain to New Zealanders why it would be better to borrow $5 to $7 billion from overseas lenders at a time when the world is awash with debt and consequent risks,” he said.

According to Associate Professor David Tripe, a banking specialist from Massey’s School of Economics and Finance, the government had taken the wrong approach to selling the merits of its privatisation plans to the public.

“Part privatisation would boost volume and activity on the New Zealand share market. It is a way for New Zealand businesses to raise funds. I do not understand why the government is only telling half the story because it makes it much harder to sell the idea,” he said.

Mr English praised Massey and the Chamber’s initiative of bringing together academics and business leaders to share ideas about improving the nation’s prosperity.

“Eighteen years ago you would not have had a university turn up to a business conference, let alone organise one. It is important for universities and business to get together to make practical plans about issues like filling the skills gap.”

Massey University Vice-Chancellor Steve Maharey said that there was 25% gap in the skills currently needed in the Auckland region’s workforce.

Chamber chief executive Michael Barnett said his officials were working with the Auckland Council to provide work experience for 500 young people each year.

Caption: Finance Minister Bill English, Massey Vice-Chancellor Steve Maharey, Auckland Chamber of Commerce CEO Michael Barnett at Finance 2012.

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