Steven Joyce likes his cappucinos, but insists that nothing is sprinkled on the top. Surely, that’s more of a latte then? No, no, with a layer of espresso, milk and froth it distinguishes itself from the infamous beverage and with no chocolate sprinkle, it is all the more authentically Italian. Joyce, a name more synonymous with Guiness and Leprecauns than Italian espressos, is a jovial, sensible fellow. Since taking over the Tertiary Education portfolio from Anne Tolley last year, Joyce has made some controversial decisions – reducing the eligibility for mature students, cutting the holiday period for loan repayments from 3 years to 1 and so on. How do these actions affect you? How you rate his performance is up to you, but dare I say it, I was quite impressed.
Jumping write into the recent announcements regarding student loans, National has reduced the holiday period for overseas travel after study from three years to one, what effect do you think this will have on postgraduate students studying abroad?
That’s a fair call. I don’t think it will have a massive effect because the IRD understands if people don’t have incomes. It is hard to procure all sorts of things if you don’t have an income.
The more important thing about that is we have quite an inequitable situation where if you stay in the country, the odds are you will pay off the loan in about four and a half years. If you go out of the country, then the group that goes out of the country, the average time it takes for them to pay off their loan is fourteen years. So it is reasonably inequitable to those who stay. I don’t think it encourages people to come home as they are worried they’ll be smacked with a big interest bill. So I think we have to face up to it a bit. I think if people go away on an OE, they usually go away for about 6 months to a year before you work anywhere, but then you have to have some form of income at that point and it would seem to me that it would be a good time to start making contributions. He just better not bring in interest on SLs after the election this year.
Can you describe to me your motivations behind the changes?
It starts from a position that we are spending a reasonably large amount on tertiary education, we are not the biggest but we spend a pretty goodly amount. We haven’t got the money to spend anymore because the country is, you know.
I’m the type of person who likes to think we are exploring value for money anyway. So it is really a case of how you tackle that and in the case of student loans, there have been some areas that I think were absolute no-brainers and I was stunned to find out that for example, a new permanent resident could come into the country and they can’t get a benefit and they can’t get an allowance, but they can enrol at a University or a PTE and borrow living costs and the student loan. It just strikes me as strange. There are undoubtedly people who have come in to the country and do just that, they are probably advised to by their immigration provider, but you can’t justify that. Allowing people to borrow again when they are in arrears seems dangerous not just for the fact you are unlikely to get the money back but that they are obviously not in a position to do that and should they be taking on more commitment?
Those sort of things, just from a policy perspective, you go maybe not. In the wider sense, it is just about getting the best value for money and we have been able to put it back into Tertiary places, I mean we have more places at University now than we ever have before and we have got 8500 more than 2008 and we have no more money. So we have re-arranged some things and we have given people more opportunity to study.
On that point, do you think tertiary education is for everyone?
No, not necessarily. I think many things aren’t for everyone, but I think it is really important for many people. There is always that old debate: is it worth going to University? Too many people go to University. Particularly among some older New Zealanders, I think the test of that is quite simple, that people who go to University, on average, earn an income premium of about 60-70% of those that don’t go. As long as that income premium is in place, you would say that obviously it is worth it. Then, on a personal level, the thing that University worked for me is that you go to University to learn how to learn and you come out with some skills and some facts and analysing things and thinking about that.
Speaking of learning, was it a steep learning curve picking up this portfolio from Anne Tolley?
Yeah it was because my last association with the Tertiary education sector was in 1984 which was a year before I stopped enrolling. Obviously, I have been around the cabinet table when Tertiary Education was discussed so I was familiar with the broader issues, but it was a pretty steep immersion process. I think I created a new record in the number of briefing sent to a Tertiary Minister in my early days.
What was the record?
We got to around 120-130 pretty quickly. I don’t know whether it was true or not, but there was word of what happened with my other portfolios to see if this sort of pace was going to continue.
Has the pace continued?
Oh yes, absolutely. I am relentlessly curious so I just want to keep learning stuff so if someone gives me a paper about it, because I literally haven’t been in the Education industry for the past twenty years, so I will say give me a briefing on this.
Have you had any briefings on the aging population of teaching staff at Universities?
Not specifically, it has been raised in discussions with Vice-Chancellors at different times, not that many times, but I am aware of it. I think, firstly, it is an appropriate issue for the Universities to address. It is the responsibility of every organisation to make sure they are bringing people through and they are hiring new people. I know that Universities are putting a lot of thought into, it is because they can’t caught without a cohort behind it. There are some policy settings that can change the size and we can look at that, but we have to acknowledge that they have to be involved to make sure they have the right balance.
Your maiden statement in parliament is full of gusto and promise, now nearing the end of your first term, how would you describe your political outlook? Are you still as optimistic?
I am optimistic, yeah. It is a fascinating role and it is a real privilege to get to make some interesting calls and do some good things. I am very proud of some of the things we have done across the portfolios. I am proud of the progress we are making in road safety, I am proud of the investment we are making in transport and the Tertiary area. In a couple of years’ time when we have about 20% more graduates coming out of Universities than we had at the end of the previous government. Again, as I said with no additional money and after a long period of stagnation over 2000-8 the number graduates remained the same.
Also in the speech, you called yourself a “lesser beast – a list MP”, what difference does it make being able to go straight into a cabinet position from the National list in terms of getting things done?
I think it would be difficult, it is challenging, one of the most difficult things I have done, to learn the ropes around here, if you added an electoral responsibility on top of that and it would be more challenging again, I don’t know if it would be possible.
Would you be looking to put forward yourself for an electoral seat in the future?
I hadn’t given it a lot of thought, but I have had a couple of approaches this time, but I thought that really I have got enough to do at this time and I enjoy the confidence of the Prime Minister which is pretty useful in having the roles that I have got. If we get another go, hopefully he will give me another shot. At this stage, I don’t see it as a long term career. It is an opportunity to help and do some things and on that basis, I am happy to help do some things. I have some big responsibilities at the moment, so I am focussing on those.
You have said that a number of the board members of RadioWorks including Norton Moller, Derek Lowe and John Armstrong were your mentors throughout your management of the enterprise, what was the best advice you were given that has helped you in your role in both the private and public sectors?
I don’t know if we got a particular piece of advice there. I think it was really good that they knew about running businesses because when we started we were really into running radio stations. We were really interested in playing music, organising bands, doing interviews and maybe some advertising. It needed David’s money to help with it. We were a bit undisciplined initially and they were all about pay your bills, make sure there is money in the bank account, all that sort of stuff. That was very useful I think at that age – 24, 25 – they got us in the groove I think. They recognised before we did I think that you could grow the place, they did what a good board should do: they observed, gave advice and at the right time said we think you should expand a little.
Heading three ministerial portfolios and being the Associate Minister of two and having managed 650 staff at RadioWorks, you are a fairly capable manager. How would you characterize this management style?
I am probably one of these people who like to ask a lot of questions. This is different to commercial business because commercially you spend a lot of time, particularly when you get to a larger organisation, I mean we had 20 branches when I sold. You are very conscious that you are putting in systems that will run their business because they were all their own businesses essentially. Whereas this is a little different, this is a system set up to make decisions so you have the approach that you have to gather advice, take advice and together with your colleagues make a call. So the whole system is designed to draw information in. Here I am very curious, I don’t like not knowing the answer to things so I will keep going until I have the answer and I think I get the correct one most of the time.
After RadioWorks was sold to CanWest as the result of a corporate raid, are you more cautious or less trusting in the roles you undertake now?
I don’t think you can be. Everyone has, that wasn’t something I chose to see happen and at the time, I was disappointed, very disappointed.
Were you surprised?
Not completely, we had quite an open register. I was surprised at the timing and surprised at how it unfolded, but it was very disappointing at the time. It had become my baby and I wanted it to go and do other things, but things happen for a reason and I can think of so many things that wouldn’t have happened if that hadn’t occurred and I wouldn’t want to change any of those things that happened subsequently. They happen for a reason and there is no use getting wound up about what doesn’t go your way. I don’t get too bound up in my own experience because we are all products of our own experiences but we can’t get trapped by that experience.