Launch of the Tertiary Education Commission - 13 February 2003

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Rt. Hon Helen Clark
13 February 2003

It is a pleasure to take part in the formal launch of the Tertiary Education Commission this evening.

The establishment of the Commission is critical to the new direction for tertiary education which the government has promoted since coming to office in 1999. We said then that we wanted more collaboration and a focus on quality and excellence in the tertiary sector. Those qualities are also central to our growth and innovation strategy and to ensuring that New Zealand stands tall in the 21st century as a confident and dynamic nation.

The process of developing the first ever New Zealand Tertiary Education Strategy and establishing the Commission has involved a great deal of consultation and dialogue within the wider tertiary education sector, and beyond. A wide range of organisations representing a cross section of New Zealand social and economic life have been engaged. That is because tertiary education has a major contribution to make to New Zealandís economic, social, and cultural development, as well as to the education of each of us as individuals, seeking to fulfill our potential and use our talents to the full.

Our government does not undertake significant structural change lightly. The imperatives for change must be strong and the benefits clear. This is undoubtedly the case with respect to the change in tertiary education. A new organisation with clout was needed to drive a strategy which could transform New Zealand into a more highly skilled and knowledge-rich society. That change is essential to our future.

New Zealand in the 21st century must be a confident and successful nation, able to capitalise on its own unique qualities, developing the skills and knowledge of its people, nurturing good ideas, being able to compete globally with high value goods and services, and at home encouraging the maximum possible social cohesion and participation. The Tertiary Education Strategy articulates the role of the tertiary sector in achieving that vision.

Building sustainable economic growth at satisfactory levels and lifting living standards demands a focused effort and strategic approaches across the government system, and requires government to work in partnership with local government, industry, the science and research sector, and with all our communities. The effective implementation of the tertiary education changes is critical in that process.

The vision of the growth and innovation framework sees New Zealanders as;

∑ Optimistic and confident about our countryís future;
∑ Celebrating our successes in all walks of life;
∑ Creating globally competitive companies;
∑ Committing to sustainable development;
∑ Ensuring that a social dividend flows from economic success;
∑ Gaining strength from the Treaty of Waitangi as our nationís founding document.

The framework has a key objective of lifting New Zealand back into the top half of the OECDís, per capita income rankings over time. That requires our growth rates on average to be above those of our OECD partners.

Currently the economy is performing well and above the OECD average. New Zealandís annual average growth in the year to September came in at 3.9 per cent. Unemployment for the December quarter came in at 4.9 per cent, the lowest since March 1988.

Net inward migration is strong with New Zealand proving popular not only with new migrants, but also with Kiwis who are both returning and staying home in significantly larger numbers.

Other key indicators are also encouraging. Retail sales, consumer confidence, and businessesí own investment and employment intentions are all solid, although overall business confidence is picking up the current international uncertainty.

Pleasing as current conditions are, however, this is no time to relax on the change process. The rising New Zealand dollar reminds us of the ongoing challenge to our economy to reposition up the value chain as a supplier of highly desired and high value products which are less vulnerable to currency fluctuations. Our government is determined to see New Zealand in the race to the top, competing on innovation, quality, and value; and not in the race to the bottom, competing to produce the cheapest products and having the least concern for labour and environmental standards. A high skilled, high waged economy, which can sustain high living standards, is the objective. And thatís where the education system plays such a critical role.

What happens in tertiary education builds on the many years children and young people spend in the education system from early childhood onwards.

Last year saw the launch of a new nationwide strategy for the early childhood sector, aiming to lift quality and participation rates, and to increase involvement with and support from New Zealandís many communities.

In the compulsory sector, teacher numbers are increasing ahead of roll growth; there are major information and communications technology initiatives, and a fresh look is being taken at how to improve teaching and learning. Pathways for students from school to paid work and related training are being strengthened.

At the tertiary end, the new strategy links education to the key goals of economic and, social development. It looks for greater collaboration, improved quality, partnerships with stakeholders and communities, improved global linkages, future focused strategies, and a culture of optimism and creativity.

It looks for stronger links and partnerships between tertiary research and other sectors, with research better informing the development of new services and industries and enhancing existing services and industries.

It looks for stronger linkages between employers and tertiary education organisations to minimise gaps between emerging skills shortages and education and training responses.

The Tertiary Education Commission takes over the responsibilities and functions of Skill New Zealand, and it is very important that the impetus and momentum achieved by Skill New Zealand is maintained. The past three years have seen phenomenal growth in the numbers of apprentices and trainees in industry. But the pace of economic growth is still outstripping our ability to supply enough relevant skills, and we are racing to catch up.

This is a top priority for the government. Put simply, skills shortages choke off growth potential. We will do everything in our power to match the potential and talents of New Zealanders up with the skills needed in the workforce. Success in this area has the potential to knock unemployment back further.

While inevitably future strategies for education have a strong and necessary focus on how to drive a stronger, up market economy, they must also focus on the intrinsic benefits and qualities of education.

Put simply, an educated, knowledgeable community is likely to be a more interesting, tolerant, and outward looking community. I stand strongly for the role of education in producing well rounded, highly literate, well informed New Zealanders, who are aware of the world around us, of history, of cultural heritage, and of the great ideas and philosophies which have driven humankind. Education can never be reduced to a mere economic input. It has the potential to transform the lives of individuals and whole communities. Its focus must be broad and empowering, not narrow and confining.

In closing, I offer my congratulations to all who have worked so hard to create this new Tertiary Education Commission and the new Tertiary Education Strategy from the earliest days of the Tertiary Education Advisory Commission. It has been a long haul, but I believe it has been worthwhile. The government has high hopes for the new organisation, the strategy, and the whole sector. We look forward to continuing to work with you.