In New Zealand, under the “Tomorrow’s Schools” and “Learning for Life” programs, the free-market model was imposed at every level of education. Elected governing bodies were modelled on private sector boards responsible for fiscal oversight. Principals were turned into CEOs accountable for financial performance and the delivery of measurable educational “outcomes”, which were often decided by Treasury. In the tertiary sector, Labour ceased to fund the full cost of courses, and in 1990, introduced a flat $1,250 tuition fee. Universal student allowances were abolished.
Over the last 15 years, successive governments have cut education funding, forcing individual institutions to make up the shortfall. The burden has increasingly fallen on parents in the form of charges and fundraising, resulting in a widening gulf between “rich” and “poor” schools. In a growing struggle for funds, schools in wealthier areas naturally have far more leverage than those serving working class areas.
Spending on compulsory schooling has fallen as a proportion of the whole, while more money has gone to private providers offering vocational and specialist programs in the post school sector. Since 1987, over 900 private training establishments (PTEs) have been created, with 234 of these currently receiving a total of $264 million in government subsidies. The public education system—at both school and tertiary levels—is increasingly reliant on privately sourced funds. Ministry of Education figures show that locally-raised funds from all sources have steadily increased, as a proportion of the government’s operations funding to schools, to more than 12 percent of the $900 million non-salary component of school budgets.
Schools in working class areas have never been able to raise significant extra funding. Some are insolvent. More than 50 schools since 2005 in the hands of statutory managers. Most of these are in working class neighbourhoods. The managers are moved in to oversee the school’s finances, but effectively take control of the whole range of school activities, including staffing and curriculum decisions.
Schools in the very poorest areas do not even ask for donations as few parents can afford to pay. Some years ago, trouble began after some schools engaged debt collection agencies to demand money from parents. The practice only stopped after the education minister was forced to clarify that “donations” were voluntary and not legally enforceable. That does not prevent schools from requiring a range of payments, including materials fees, sports fees, photocopying costs and the like.
According to a report published in December by the Ministry of Social Development, perversely titled “Opportunity for All New Zealanders”, New Zealand has one of the widest disparities in education achievement of any developed country. It showed that while the upper 17 % of children tested in the international top 10 percent in reading benchmarks, the bottom 16 % did not reach the lower quarter. The range of scores was wider than most other countries tested, including Sweden, England and the US.
Students who make it to university face some of the highest tuition fees in the world. A 2001 study by New York’s Buffalo University, reported recently in the Sunday Star Times, ranks New Zealand fourth in the world for fees at public tertiary institutions. The average costs are higher than at similar public institutions in Australia, the US and the UK. By comparison, many countries, including Germany and Sweden, do not charge fees.
Official figures show that male students take an average of 15 years to pay off their loans and female students take 28 years with obvious personal and economic consequences. Those most affected are from poor families who cannot call on their parents for assistance. From the moment that students enter primary schools to when they finish their education, the “user pays” education system is increasingly stacked in favour of the wealthy.