Bill English mocked the demonstrating post-graduates and suggested they take lessons in rioting from the Greeks. They do not need to look that far; New Zealand's teacher unions have provided a fine lesson in how vested self-interest groups can defend their entitlements.
What has been lost in the debacle is that the Treasury Secretary pointed to hard evidence that showed class sizes made little difference. What mattered was teacher quality. John Key made the point that in the past 10 years the teacher roll had increased 12.5 per cent to 50,000 and student numbers had risen by 2.5 per cent. Rebalancing was in order.
In a tight economic environment, a policy was devised to cut the teacher roll marginally and introduce performance pay to attract and retain quality teachers. How hard a political sell is that?
Would you rather have little Johnny in a room of 30 kids being taught by a competent, energetic pedagogue or in a class of 28 being taught by an unmotivated dullard?
This, however, was not the question that was asked in the mindless vox pop quiz to the "man in the street".
The question was "do you want larger class sizes" and not "do you want your kids taught by unmotivated dullards?"
Teacher unions were always going to react to a cull. Overstaffing benefits them significantly but the burden of this is spread over all taxpayers.
We remain passive while the unions successfully exert enough pressure to keep their snouts in the Government's trough.
Key talks about economic growth like farmers talk about summer. It will arrive; we just have to wait long enough. If only that were true.
Improving the standard of education was something real he could have achieved and it would have had a positive impact on economic growth. It is an opportunity missed.
Following the unions' example, the demonstrating postgraduates must feel confident about overturning the Budget change that prevents them being able to claim student allowances. They can, however, borrow money from the taxpayer at the very attractive interest rate of zero. They can still apply to tutor undergraduates, seek sponsorship, do private teaching work or, heaven forbid, get their hands dirty working at McDonald's, assuming McDonald's will take them.
Let's keep in mind that student fees do not cover the total cost of a university education. The budget provides $1.1 billion for universities (presumably including renamed technical institutions like AUT) to cater for 118,000 students. This comes out at more than $9000 a year per student, or $29,000 per degree. Plus student allowances.
The Government still subsidises the cost of postgraduate education. Expecting students to do some work is not a cause for rioting.