Tolley score: Economic blinkers 17, anything else Nil.

Posted on April 30, 2009


I knew the government was focussed on the economy but I’ve just been blown away by the lack of vision, short-sightedness and one-track mindedness shown by Education Minister Anne Tolley.    She just gave a very bland speech on “Tertiary Education Policy in 2009” at the Tertiary Education Summit

She says tertiary education is critical to the economy.    These are “challenging times”,  she says.   I agree so far:  the current financial crisis is a symptom of global support systems under stress – this is challenging indeed. 

Therefore,  she says, “we need to examine the tertiary sector against two questions:  does it produce results for economic well-being?  how well does it stack up internationally in contributing to economic growth?”.     Hang on.  Economic well-being?   Surely she can see that both the problems and solutions as we move out of the NICE decade are long term and involve structural changes across the whole integrated system of economy, society and the environment.   

She raises good questions about the role of education in the economy,  but is that really it?   Is that really the sole basis for education policy for the next parliamentary term?   How about does it contribute to a healthy society?  Does it produce critical creative, valued members of society?   Does it prepare people for addressing the challenges the country will face over the next 50 years?   How about asking the broader question “does it produce results for well-being?”

Nope, that it is it.  The Economy.  Stupid. 

Here’s the speech by numbers (with quotes from my notes). 

17 mentions of economic basis for education: Education is important because it gives us value for money.  It gives us a robust economy.  It is a key strategic national asset in times of economic crisis.  The imperative is to control costs.  We are investing for growth.  Education is a credible plan for the economy.  Education will mean we can respond to economic circumstances.  The workforce must be responsive and flexible to economic circumstances. More money in graduates pockets will mean they spend which will help the economy. Education means workers are more productive.   We will invest in areas of education that deliver a clear economic ROI.  The economy drives needs of education.   

6  Non specific benefits of education: education comes with a debt burden. 

3 Social:  (I’m grasping at straws here):  People from all backgrounds benefit from higher income.   More money in their pockets means improved quality of live.

2 Academic quality:  We need to focus on tertiary sector reporting so we know we’re getting value for money.   We’re looking at how completions (etc) are reported so we know we’re getting the best educational outcomes.  

Zero  Personal growth:  No mention at all about critical creative, valued and participating members of society (or anything like it).

Zero Environment:   No mention of environmental challenges.

To be fair.   I might be interpreting her speech with a dichotomy she didn’t intend.  She might have meant “economy” to mean not just money but to include how people live their lives, the planet they do that on etc.     She could have equally used “society” or “community” or even “environment” as vague generic terms.   The fact is though, she didn’t.   She used economy meaning money and meant it.  


If  our government is seeing tertiary education is a factory that produces production automatons and nothing else, then it is vital that we don’t lose sight of the more noble aspects of education.  In an apparent vision and policy vacuum we must reassert that education is a commitment to fulfilment at the highest possible level so that all members of society can contribute to a better future.    That community needs to be able to overcome underlying imbalances of deteriorating ecosystems and fraying social harmony, and tertiary education has a key role in preparing us for that.