Tuesday, May 21

How New Zealand can begin to leave mediocracy behind

I recently wrote on J.G.A. Pocock’s question from 1960 as to whether New Zealand was, unlike many post-war western nations, not an emerging meritocracy, but rather mired in mediocracy. Furthermore, whether over 60 years on, New Zealand remains far more a mediocracy than a meritocracy. In this subsequent discussion I want to suggest ways New Zealand can exit mediocracy and undertake a better, improved form of meritocracy.

To begin, we need to understand the basis of meritocracy and these 4 central qualities of meritocratic society as recently outlined by Adrian Wooldridge seem a good place to start. A meritocracy is based on: achievement on natural talent; equality of opportunity via education for all; forbidding of discrimination on the basis of sex and race etc; and, “rewards jobs through open competition rather than patronage and nepotism.”

On a first reading these seem like good, clear and non-contestable values but to implement a workable, equitable society on these requires significant change from our status quo.

One issue for many with meritocracy is its basis in the freely-choosing modern individual because of various ways ‘freely-choosing’, ‘modern’ and ‘individual’ are understood and how their expression, options and demands are framed by society, culture, religion, gender and traditions. Yet I argue that meritocracy should at least be a central aspirational value for New Zealand society because otherwise we find ourselves as a mediocracy or – even worse – a society that not only is a mediocracy but one where individuals are limited and defined by societal structures beyond their control. In other words, society is done to them, rather than for and with them.

Meritocracy is, as Wooldridge notes, a revolutionary idea because of its focus on the individual being enabled to achieve on the basis of a combination of work, skills and intelligence and so, at least in theory, offers a place for the previously marginalized. Secondly, it enables easy and ongoing change so we do not – or should not – get the capture and gate-keeping of the political, technocratic, business and academic realms by certain self-interested groups who become a new establishment. This is because thirdly, meritocracy is capable of self-correction and can and should be reformed.

The central issue with contemporary meritocracies is that they tend to reject self-correction in the name of self-interest. Those who have achieved fail to see that they have achieved because of opportunities offered to them and seek ‘to pull the ladder up after them’ and gate-keep for their children. Often it is the children of the first-generation meritocracy who institute a new form of establishment mediocracy. In other words, we need to ensure meritocracy does not become either a closed, new aristocracy of the mediocre, or a pluto-meritocracy where access to meritocracy is determined by access to wealth.

The problem with New Zealand is, as noted by Pocock, the mediocre expectations regarding education. A central issue for New Zealand has been that since colonization the ethos of settler society has been focused on material gain, not intellectual development. Ideas and knowledge, unless ‘practical’ and scientific, have often been regarded as marginal at best, and valueless by most. The New Zealand scything of tall poppies has been most focused upon educational achievement. But New Zealand continues to decline internationally in math, reading and writing. This perpetuates both a mediocracy for many and that problematic pluto-meritocracy for the wealthy.

We need to ask very tough questions of our state education system and this starts with the vast discrepancies of resourcing and funding, access and teacher training occurring in our pre-school system. More widely, we need to recognize and address the anti-meritocratic impact caused by the housing crisis, by the failures of our health system and especially mental health, by widespread poverty and the cost of living and how these disproportionately impact Māori and Pasifika. Our welfare state is really the maintenance of a status quo that is anti-meritocratic by default, if not intent. 

Our failing and inequitable state education system is what drives both our mediocracy and our pluto-meritocracy. It is now common for house listing to emphasize not only the high-school zone but now the primary school zone. In a proper meritocratic state schooling system, what school you went to would not matter and more so, school zones would not play any role in house pricing. Remember these sentiments expressed in the infamous case from almost a decade ago of the challenge to the rezoning of Epsom Girls Grammar and Auckland Grammar where one parent noted “You live in this area because you pay $100,000 more for your house so you can access Epsom Girls Grammar and Auckland Grammar School” and another stated “I know where I want my kids to go to school…They are going to the public schools that achieve some of the very best academic results. Why would I want my child, given the choice, to go somewhere that doesn’t.”

These are not meritocratic values of parents seeking the best for their children, they are pluto-meritocracy values acknowledging that in the state system of New Zealand education money will buy you access and results – and frankly, if you can afford it you’d be a mug to not do so. And that is why our system is broken: it encourages and rewards pluto-meritocracy on the one hand and facilitates mediocracy on the other. 

In 2019 the government announced the future replacement of school deciles by an equity index, yet questions remain regarding underlying issues of inequity and expectations. While as the OECD has observed, educational equity is difficult to achieve and requires significant and long-term investment and correction.

However, those nations that do take educational investment, expectation and success seriously can expect positive outcomes for far more students and wider society than one that under-invests, does not seek societal mind-set changes and has lower expectations and success rates.

One sign of something being very wrong with our state school system is the proliferation of private math and science tutoring. If our state education system was working there would be little need for this private sector augmentation of the state system. The proliferation of private tutoring is deeply anti-meritocratic as it is only available to those students whose parents can afford or choose pay for it. Such a nation-wide tutoring system is an ongoing example of our baseline mediocracy (from government downwards) in too many aspects of state education and expectation.

Yet perhaps the most significant issue for New Zealand as possible meritocracy and probable mediocracy is that of too many people coming into the tertiary education system and what is expected of them when they are in it. Let’s be clear, for far too many a 3-year undergraduate degree is not going to deliver them the skills, knowledge, training or financial rewards that it should. In a world of increased tertiary student numbers and of student loans (with a very low repayment threshold – with interest), too often a tertiary education is not what it was nor what it should be.

In the UK there has been a recent discussion of the issue of negative-earning degrees led by a report from the Centre for Policy Studies focused on the problems of the New Labour-based drive of an over-inflated tertiary education sector, all based on student loans

We may not yet quite be at the UK experience of ‘the university scam’ and the way too many students are conned into believing any degree (‘C’s get degrees’…), funded by deeply problematic student loans will provide them options it clearly will not, but in many ways we are not far off. 

Those of us in the universities need to be honest and state that for most, leaving with a 3-year undergraduate degree will not provide the future social or financial capital they expect it to. To change this, we need to have difficult and honest conversations as universities as to what we expect from our students and what we know a 3-year undergraduate degree will and will-not offer and enable our students. We need to recognize that a 3-year undergraduate degree where lecture and tutorial attendance is optional- or can be done ‘on-line’- is not serving our students well. We need to recognize that too many students do not do the required or secondary readings and when they do, many skim over material and/or do not understand the wider context. We need to address the increasing inability of students, distracted by social media in class and in study, to concentrate for a close reading and an extended argument. We also need to ensure our student have a wider cultural, political, economic and social literacy that extends beyond that deemed of interest by social media and its analytics. 

A tertiary education should not be easy; it should be ‘hard work’ for those who have the ability, skills and work ethic to succeed. A meritocratic tertiary education would demand more of our students and staff while acknowledging the issues are ones of pre-tertiary education and wider-society. But this also means tertiary funding on student numbers and on basic pass and completion rates is too blunt an instrument; it encourages implicit and explicit game-playing to ensure course numbers, degree completions and university enrolments. Therefore, a meritocratic re-focus will challenge the status-quo at all levels, seeking and demanding more from all levels of our education system while recognizing the existing inequities that limit meritocratic participation and achievement.