Old boys’ clubs and agile minds

Simon Upton is bleating in the Dominion Post about why New Zealand will never catch up to Australia. He diagnoses terminal distance, and quiet society, with a lack of talent. There is a leadership group, he opines, that shares out the jobs amongst itself, and anyone with ability doesn’t want to stay because there is no depth of talent here. (I’m paraphasing here, of course, but you can always go read his words for yourself.) He wants Don Brash’s taskforce, the one that was supposed to come up with some bright ideas about what to do and instead came up with a plodding rehash of the policies of the 1980s, to think about what might attract able New Zealanders to return.

Step back a little from your words, Mr Upton, and you have the beginnings of an answer. So many of our agile minds are driven overseas because what you call a leadership group, and what I see as an old boys club, albeit of all genders, refuses to recognise and recruit and nurture and create talent. They’re all okay, doing their jobs. Why on earth should they care about the bright young women and men down the hallway, who just want a chance to show what they can do.

If nothing else is evidence that New Zealand is run by an old boys club that doesn’t really want fresh ideas and fresh thinking, choosing Don Brash to lead the task force does. This is a man who headed up the Reserve Bank through the economic doldrums of the 1990s and then was rejected by the New Zealand electorate. Yet when it came to trying to develop some top level ideas about how to help New Zealand and New Zealanders succeed, the person they turned to was a failed politician.

I feel a little bitter and twisted about the old boys club, because the reason that we live in Australia is that my partner could not obtain the position he wanted in New Zealand. The old boys club patted him on the head and said “Not yet, dear – you’re not really good enough yet.” But he went across the Tasman and got the position he wanted, and is excelling in the job. (Well, I would say that, of course, but all kinds of external recognition have come his way, and further promotion, since we moved to Australia.) It seems that a New Zealander simply can’t get recognition and opportunity in New Zealand. We didn’t choose to go overseas; we were driven overseas. And I like to think that we are exactly those agile minds that Upton would like to have here; we are both terminally qualified, we have both worked in and been successful in a variety of areas, including business, we are both actively involved in any communities in which we live. At this time of our lives, we are able to make a significant contribution to societies in which we live, in straightforward economic terms (for many years now, we have been net tax payers, not net tax takers), and in intangible ways. But New Zealand seems not to want us.

Some possible solutions? How about holding heads of universities to account for the performance of their institutions? How about funding universities properly? That might mean funding universities directly rather than funding them via hugely increased student numbers and student loans. How about making the effort to ensure that the five New Zealand universities that appear in the Top Universities ranking (that is, the top 500 universities IN THE WORLD), get to stay there. Most countries are desperate to get their tertiary institutions into the index at all; we have Otago, Auckland, Massey, Canterbury and Victoria universities in that list. Two of those universities seem to be doing well, getting plenty of extra money for new buildings and new institutions, but the government seems to have left the others to fend for themselves. The evidence for this? The Briefing to the Incoming Minister says:

Having one or two internationally recognised high-quality institutions positively affects the way the overall system is regarded. However, there are challenges in achieving high rankings for New Zealand with its small dispersed population and relatively low Gross Domestic Product, including challenges related to funding levels. Universities have been framing what they describe as an under-funding issue in terms of striking a better balance between investment in student support and direct investment in institutions, and the basis on which cost pressures are met through the funding system. The current policy approach is to progress toward a more differentiated system that would support New Zealand’s top universities attaining international levels of excellence. [PDF]

In other words, we’ll fund just a couple of our five world-ranked universities, and we’ll wave goodbye to the agile minds in the others.

Other solutions: celebrating success. Not bloody sporting success, which when all is said and done, is bread and circuses for the masses. Not just business success, although that is important too. But what about celebrating intellectual success, the incredible research output from New Zealand, the practical and critical and strategic thinking skills that so many New Zealanders have.

Those agile minds don’t just happen by wishing it were so. We need to train them, and give them opportunities, and give them reason to stay. And just maybe, clearing away some of the “leadership group” might be the way to do it.

Upton is right: we don’t have a large pool of talent in New Zealand. But we have enough. There are five million of us, more than enough to generate intellectuals and critical thinkers and ideas people and entrepreneurs and scientists and business people. Instead of bemoaning our small talent pool, we need to nurture every single one of us, and make this country a place where we want to stay, because we feel valued and respected and wanted.

I can see nothing that the current government is doing to celebrate and reward and encourage and retain our agile minds.

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8 responses to “Old boys’ clubs and agile minds

  1. It’s unbelievable that the government thinks we have too many world class universities.

    Or that they are willing to squander the intellectual and institutional capital built up in these universities. Surely the first rule of investment is to maintain your assets?

    It suggests that tertiary education policy has been set by people who simply don’t understand the international tertiary sector.

  2. On the bright side, we in Adelaide are very glad to have you.

  3. You tell ’em. That was a real ripsnorter, grrrl!

  4. My wife and I had no desire to leave Wellington, but then the envious, small-minded ones above her at Vic decided to restructure her position out of existence.

    It took one email and she had a great job at a university in Australia. I sent one email after we arrived on Tuesday, got an interview on Thursday and started work on Monday.

    We want to go home, but though we look every day, no work remotely in our fields is available. So we stay.

    The problem, I think, is that we both have a lot of experience, which is not valued in NZ (it is seen as threatening, or else seen as having to pay you too much when a 20-year-old will do it for a third of the salary) but it certainly is in Australia.

  5. We may very well be joining the brain drain soon as well.

  6. I’m in a similar position as Poneke’s wife – I can fairly easily get work in NZ, but for less than half the wage and with no prospect of advancement. Even self-employment is harder in NZ, not because of the stifling bureaucrazy but because NZ businesses pride themselves on paying the bare minimum necessary to get a minimal solution.

    Part of this is market scale, sure, but a fair number of people I’ve worked for here are selling internationally because the Australian market is not big enough. It’s kind of annoying when companies with impressive products won’t invest to really push them, preferring instead the slow, safe progression that guarantees they will get overtaken and slowly, safely wiped off the map.

  7. I’m on the train with you, Deborah. And suffice it to say I think the student loans scheme, particularly where it comes to living costs, only adds to things. I fail to see how NZ is going to get a critical mass of minds when those minds start out indebted, are paid badly, and can pay off that debt so much easier somewhere else.