Hard News by Russell Brown

Leave the chip behind

The Weekend Herald's Saturday lead, Quarter of NZ's brightest are gone, should not have surprised anyone, although it was salutary to see the numbers. Nearly half a million people born in New Zealand are living in other OECD countries, and 24.2% of all New Zealand-born people with tertiary qualifications. The latter figure is the highest for any OECD country, just shading those other small nations, Ireland and Luxembourg.

It has always been thus. Indeed, for a fair part of last century, almost anyone with prospects got out and didn't come back. In 1948, the American academic Leslie Lipson, who weathered the World War II years at Wellington's Victoria University, wrote that he liked and admired us, but worried that we had created "a world safe for mediocrity" and a conscious "restraint on talent". We had delivered the world men of the calibre of Rutherford:

Yet persistently New Zealand refuses opportunities to its most talented sons and daughters, denies them the chance of creative expression, and often drives them from its own shores in that annual "export of brains" which is its greatest tragedy.

At the very time he wrote, there were poets and painters who had stubbornly chosen to stay, and to remedy what Lipson lamented as our lack of achievement in "the realm of art, literature, of the spirit". They helped devise a cultural aspiration that extended beyond being a distant outpost of England. We might still have our issues, but it is in part through their stubbornness we are a bolder and better place now than then.

Or maybe not. What was striking about the Herald's coverage of the story was the huge chips on the shoulders of some of the New Zealand expats who responded to a list of questions on the Herald website last week. Most notable was computing consultant Jamie Clark, who is working in Singapore. In a fairly dazzling burst of invention, he told the Herald this:

"I would not want my (yet to materialise) kids in the NZ system. NZ seems to be on a steady slide to mediocrity. The result of all the politically-correct nonsense is that school-leavers have third-world literacy and numeracy skills, yet they all pass NCEA."

Third world? Clearly he was confused and actually meant to say third in the world, as the OECD's Programme For International Student Assessment found in 2001, for both reading and maths. Another comparison in 2003 had our students ranking only in the top 10 in the world, but as Canterbury University's Warwick Elley pointed out in a paper last year, sharp changes either way in such surveys tend to relate to the vagaries of sampling. He looks at various studies over the past three decades and concludes that New Zealand students' achievement in reading has been high in that time - and remarkably stable given a recent sharp increase in the number of students for whom English is a second language.

The gap between our most and least able students is of concern, but it can safely be said that in airily declaring "third world" education standards in New Zealand, Mr Clark is talking through his expatriate arse. If that's his attitude, he might as well stay away. Or at least leave the chip behind when he does come back.

A number of the Herald's respondents were aware of recent problems with NCEA, although, like so many of those shouting about NCEA at the moment, they had not actually been near a New Zealand classroom. So it might be useful to note that the last letter from the principal of my boy's high school (academically outstanding in its decile, generally glowing ERO reports) was unusually forthright on the matter:

I have concerns about the impact of the current NCEA media furore on students and parents. Clearly, public confidence in our national qualification has been shaken, if not undermined, in some quarters.

We are all aware that education has become a highly politicised arena, accentuated by the imminent election campaign. Media coverage of this issue has revealed a combination of self-interest, wilful ignorance and political points-scoring which tells us more about the motives of the players than anything else.

[Our] teachers have identified a number of administrative aspects which are problematic and need NZQA's attention. These include the need to invest more resources into ensuring that external mderation guarantees high levels of consistency and reliability, and the need to address the issue of more accurately reporting outcomes resulting from students making strategic decisions about which standards they attempt in the externally assessed examinations.

Nevertheless, our confidence in standards-based assessment and in NCEA remains intact. I have told out students that they should have faith in the value of the qualification and in no way allow the the current controversy to affect their commitment to their course studies. Above all, they need to be aware that the quality of their credits (excellence or merit are the requisites) remains paramount.

I found one response to the Herald on the matter of race relations quite sad. Malcolm Boyce, a systems manager in Bendigo, Victoria, said:

I'm Maori, so in NZ I will be expected to go to prison sooner rather than later.

Or maybe you'll become the head of the Business Roundtable …

New OECD figures have been published in good time to put the issues of tax and wages in perspective. People who complain about tax rates here tend to ignore the impact of separate levies for social security, which in some countries make up between a quarter and a third of labour costs. In New Zealand, there is no additional levy on employers or earners for superannuation.

Since the 2003 survey, the "tax wedge" (income tax plus employer and employee social security levies) on single New Zealand employee earnings has risen slightly - as it did in 18 of the OECD's 30 member states (Richard Prebble found room in this statistic to declare, with admirable creativity, that "the net tax paid by the average New Zealand worker has increased 100 percent faster for single people, 1,500 percent higher for single parents with two children and over 300 percent greater for a one earner family with two children" compared to the OECD average). But, at 20.7% for a single manufacturing worker, it is still lower than that in any other OECD country apart from South Korea and Mexico.

It is higher for families, but still in the bottom third. And ironically, the OECD figures suggest that that is largely because other countries (including the US) operate family tax credit systems like the fledgling Working for Families scheme that the political right here is busy decrying as creeping socialism. Michael Cullen says that on these numbers, Working for Families will reduce the tax wedge for New Zealand families to the fourth lowest in the OECD by 2008. (I'm still hoping he'll surprise us and address the bracket creep issue - if benefits can be indexed, why not tax brackets?)

But there is a problem - and it's a big one for expats. Wage growth. After a couple of years of OECD-leading GDP growth, the lowest unemployment rate in the OECD and labour laws that are, by the standards of the developed world, still highly favourable to employers, wages are flatlining. On the way to becoming a low-cost economy we have become a low-wage economy. It's hard to see how more of the same might change this, or how exactly it's the present government's fault.

At the upper end of the scale, the difference in remuneration between here and New York London or even Sydney is just the fate of a small market. There aren’t as many specialist jobs available here. I know quite a few New Zealanders earning very good money in other countries. Some are happily settled elsewhere for life, some would like to come home but despair of finding a comparable job, and some will, eventually, return. I'm sure they have their issues with their birth country, but none of them are as embittered as some of the people who wrote to the Herald.

If your overriding concern is personal income, then New Zealand is not the place for you. It is relatively difficult to become wealthy working for someone else here.

But there are compensations. Auckland always rates very highly in international quality of life surveys (and even with recent currency appreciation is still only the 80th most expensive city in the world to live in). The food’s good, so's the wine; the weather’s not bad and I like the people; who are an increasingly diverse bunch.

We own a decent chunk of equity in a house only five minutes’ drive from the centre of town; there’s a beach around the corner and plenty of room to play. The schools, contrary to what you may have heard, are excellent.

And it’s home. I went to Pasifika on Saturday, and you can’t do that anywhere else. And I’m sorry if this sounds wanky, but I’m not only in it for me. I want to be part of the story here. The scale of things means it’s possible to do that, to actually make a difference.

I’m feeling a bit that way about Sunday’s Great Blend event, which could hardly have gone better. We lost John Campbell, who was stuck in Dunedin (he was only marginally less apologetic that he’d have been if he’d, say, killed my brother), but his boss Mark Jennings was a welcome and able replacement on our media panel. The Checks were great, David Slack’s reading from Civil War and Other Optimistic Predictions (he finished the book only an hour beforehand!) was excellent, and our def poet, Flaco Navaja, was an absolute star, not least with the ladies. I’m looking forward to the next one already. The Herald on Sunday's photographer has some nice pics here and here.

Anyway, I know we have a substantial expat readership, and I'm interested in what you folks think. Feel free to get in touch with comment or even, if you're so minded, a fully-fledged guest post.