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New Zealand - Constitutional & Legal Foundations

education policy labor tertiary


The constitutional and legal foundation of New Zealand is based on a number of documents and practices. These include: the British Act of Annexation; the Treaty of Waitangi, which limited and defined it; the granting of representative government in the 1850s; the Declaration of Dominion status in 1907; the ratification of the Statute of Westminster on 1946; the Bill of Rights; and a series of acts dealing with constitutional powers and procedures, including acts passed by the Labor Party in office that have reiterated and possibly expanded the Crown's obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi. Taken together these form the basis of the New Zealand Constitution. These procedures are best described in the New Zealand Cabinet Manual.

The practice of the New Zealand Constitution in 2001 is dominated by the powers of the New Zealand Parliament in the capital Wellington. The system is essentially using the Westminster model, which comprises one House of Representatives (since 1950) elected every three years (since 1996) under a system of Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) representational voting. Maori have six separate seats. New Zealand is a functioning democracy with freedom of speech, assembly and organization, and universal adult suffrage. Literacy is almost universal among the European population (often called pakeha, the Maori term for stranger) and among most Maori groups.

Under the MMP system, which is modeled partly on the German system, a party gets seats in the 120-member Parliament in proportion to its popular vote. The liberalization of the welfare and interventionist state started under the Labor government, 1984-1990, and was continued under the following Nationals government, 1990-1999. In the November 1999 election the Labor Party won a plurality of seats that enabled it to form a social democratic type government in coalition with the more Left Wing Alliance and with occasional support from the Greens. As of 2001, the Prime Minister was Helen Clark (Labor) and the Education Ministers were Trevor Mallard and Steve Maharey (Associate Minister for Tertiary Education).

The administration of education in New Zealand is based on the Westminster system and is mostly by way of an elected Minister controlling a permanent bureaucracy according to the policies of the government of the day. These are in turn constrained by the established procedures of the system that may only change at some risk to its continuing efficiency.

In the New Zealand system the Parliament makes the law, provides the money, and expects accountability through ministers that it—or more realistically the majority of its members acting as the government—appoints. The Minister for education sets the policy direction and administers policy through agencies of the state. These include the Ministry of Education, which gives policy advice, implements policy, develops curriculum statements, allocates resources, and monitors effectiveness. The New Zealand Qualifications Authority administers qualifications and provides assurance about qualifications quality, overseas the examinations system and develops the National Qualification Framework. The Teachers Registration Board register teachers. The Education Review Board evaluates the performance of individual schools and reports publicly.

As in other areas, education policy is heavily influenced by the policy of the party in power. During the 1999 election campaign the Labor Party and its allies made a number of commitments to the education sector and its clients. The most important was the pledge to direct more resources to education workers, a key component of the Labor and Left constituency.

Tertiary education policy was particularly important for the 1999 election because of the number of tertiary students and their hostility to the policy under which they had to repay loans which they took from the state during their period of study. These averaged NZ$11,000 but were sometimes much more substantial and attracted interest at commercial rates while they were repaid. In 2000 the total student debt, counted as a state asset, was worth NZ$3.5 billion from 274,891 student-loan borrowers with debts ranging from NZ$6,000 to NZ$60,000. This was estimated to rise from NZ$4 billion in 2001 to NZ$15.5 billion in 2015. This provided some incentive to leave the country and the jurisdiction of loan recovery for debtors. In 2001 it was estimated that the student debt owed by graduates who had left New Zealand totaled NZ$175 million, a 30 percent increase in one year.

Although the previous Labor government had introduced the initial policy, Labor Opposition policy was designed to reform it, partly to win student votes. Its policy was both a "progressive" critique of existing policy and an ambit claim for the industry.

Some of the points outlined in the Labor policy are:

  1. The importance of higher, or tertiary, education and research
  2. The importance of investing in the enhancement of knowledge
  3. The importance of higher education as related to New Zealand's economy
  4. The importance of collaboration between tertiary institutions to better form a "knowledge based society"
  5. The establishment of the Tertiary Education Advisory Commission (TEAC)
  6. The ways in which Labor will continue funding for students and institutions
  7. The importance of new technology
  8. The necessity of examining and retooling current student loan practices
  9. The need to increase Maori participation in higher education
  10. The importance of equal access for all other groups to higher education
  11. The need to increase the foreign student population in tertiary institutions

The Labor document accurately summarizes the political and social ambitions of the present New Zealand government with respect to the tertiary education system. It promised more tertiary places, more equitably accessed, more commercially oriented but more cheaply funded.


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