There’s a not-so-subtle form of political agitation that Government ministers employ when they want to stir the pot and push through some ill-conceived short-term policy change that will save them money and make them look good to some sections of the electorate.
It’s called “dog whistle” politics and the simple technique is to make an emotionally-charged announcement in a speech or other forum that gets the media’s attention and then gets the hounds racing.
Tertiary Education minister Stephen Joyce made a dog whistle announcement yesterday in a speech to the Wellington Chamber of Commerce.
The language of dog whistling has to be carefully constructed. There are two methods – scare mongering and aspirational – and both are usually employed.
Here’s a sample of Joyce’s aspirational language. The language of “improving outcomes”:
- Increasing the number of young people achieving degrees
- Increasing the success rate of Maori and Pasifika students
- Increasing the number of young people successfully moving from schools to tertiary
- Improving the outcomes of level one to three study
- Improving the educational and financial strength of providers, and strengthening the research outcomes.
Who could disagree with these sentiments. Of course we want to improve and increase the outcomes of tertiary education. But, as always, the devil is in the details.
How can we increase the success rate of disadvantaged students while at the same time removing the financial support mechanisms that help them overcome the structural disadvantages of being born brown in a Pakeha-dominated environment?
How do you increase achievement rates when enrollments are capped and funding per student is being cut?
How do you improve the financial strength of providers and increase research outcomes while continuing to cut funding for places and for resesarch?
The simple answer is you can’t. But the beauty of dog whistle politics is that you don’t have to. The result (in terms of aspirations) is irrelevant; the success is measured in the political support that your approach receives and the effect it has in weakening any opposition.
This last goal is achieved by making anyone who disagrees with you appear churlish and self-serving.
Hence the scare-mongering. In Joyce’s speech it came in the form of highlighting worries (unfounded in most cases) that some tertiary students are coasting, or bludging and therefore robbing taxpayers of their “value for money” expectations:
Let me be clear that we are committed to the interest free loans scheme but at that sort of cost it can’t be a blank cheque – we need to check that we aren’t setting up any perverse incentives that increases student and taxpayer exposure to debt, without getting a positive education outcome for individual students or for New Zealand.
Dog whistling requires carefully crafted weasel words too. You can see them here: “blank cheque”, “perverse incentives”, “taxpayer exposure to debt”. In other words, ‘We will get the bludgers!’
Stage two is then having others take up this call. This is achieved by putting the code words (weasel words) out there and having sections of the public adopt them as their own.
In today’s Web 2.0 words this is effectively done through talkback radio, but also now online via things like the comments and opinion sections of news sites like the New Zealand Herald.
Here’s a selection from the last couple of days. I’ve lifted this from the Herald‘s Your Views pages:
Should tertiary education funding be linked to student performance? Here is the latest selection of Your Views:
- Linking funding to pass rates encourages universities to pass students who don’t deserve the pass, and this devalues the degrees of those who have worked hard to achieve genuine passing grades.
- I can forsee our unis going the way of US unis, where they think the shorter the course, the more likely that students will graduate. So, we can see MBAs in one year, PhDs by coursework and so on.
- Such things as dedicated ethnic seats, lower entrance grades for minorities and the introduction of NCEA. All of these and others, have forced the quality of University education to be lowered to the lowest common denominator.
- What is the point of having factories that produce tonnes of almost worthless degrees?
- Most of these students sign up on courses to avoid their WINZ manager cutting benefits or making them get jobs. They have no intention of completing the course or any interest in gaining qualifications.
And so it goes on. The ‘common sense’ view, or perhaps a less-informed view – is that tertiary teachers are busy feathering their own nests by making courses easier and passing failing students so they look good. The corollary is that students are only in higher education to avoid a run in with the dole office.
Let me assure you that this is not the case. In my nearly 15 years in higher education I have not met more than a handful of students who are merely going through the motions. Why would you? The cost of a degree is around $25,000 most of which comes out of the student’s pocket as they repay their huge loans for the first ten years after they graduate. An undergraduate degree is an entry level requirement for most professions these days.
And let’s be clear, employers don’t pay for this. Take the news industry, which I know well. It used to be the case that employers would hire school leavers as cadets – basically an apprenticeship scheme. They bore the cost of this and the responsibility. Now they are heavily subsidised – even to teach shorthand – and the responsibility is on tertiary providers to be responsive to industry demands. That is why universities have become degree factories. It is not because we want an easier life.
Let me also put on the record the rigorous examination process that students undergo each year in order to advance to the next level in their course or to graduate. We use a mix of continuous assessment – portfolios, class presentations, essays etc – and exams. The mix of assessments is determined by the nature of the course and in journalism continuous assessment via portfolios of publishable work is the most appropriate form.
But each semester these results are audited and monitored by senior staff via an exams board. Courses are constantly moderated internally, by panels of external academic experts and by industry. There is no easy degree and there is no padding out of results to make lecturers look good. The system is open and transparent and the Minister and his officials know this.
Courses are vetted by the appropriate authorities; new degrees must pass rigorous evaluation and peer-review. In short, the tertiary sector is already doing what the Minister claims in his speech is not being done.
But that doesn’t matter. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
So a successful dog whistle intervention then requires follow up to ensure that the key messages are transmitted by the news media. Joyce did that with two media releases on the heels of his speech.
The first of Minister Joyce’s releases, Targeted Review of Qualifications, establishes a review to cut the number of certificates, diplomas and degrees being offered across the post-school sector. The second, Tertiary Funding Link to Performance, is more significant because it signals that further cuts in tertiary funding are likely.
Minister, you may get an ‘A’ for your dog-handling abilities, but in my eyes you are a miserable ‘F’ student when it comes to actually doing the work and preparing New Zealand for the future.