Dialogue with David

As Labour’s current spokesperson for tertiary education, research and development, and science and innovation, David Cunliffe hasn’t let last year’s election loss stop him from pursuing “a new era of positive politics in New Zealand”. Julia Braybrook caught up with him to talk about where he thinks New Zealand and its students are headed in the future.


What do you think the biggest issue facing tertiary students is?
I think it’s probably a challenge for them to find a pathway to their chosen futures given all the changes going on in the world and the increasing costs that they face on the way.

What is Labour’s vision for tertiary education?

Firstly that everybody who is capable of getting a tertiary education of whatever form and who is willing to do the work can do so without cost being an object all right? So it’s got to be accessible to all. Secondly, that we have a world class tertiary education system that supports New Zealand’s drive to become a high value, high income fair society. And thirdly that our universities are ranked among the best in the world and that we can be proud of the quality of the education that we get in New Zealand.

There’s been a lot in the media lately about how it’s never been a more difficult time to be a student financially. Do you think that students are being left behind when it comes to financial support?

I do, which is why Labour has pledged to thoroughly review student loans and allowances. The evidence of that is that the hours of work, part-time work that the average student is doing has gone up I think from 14 to 17 hours a week. That’s the average, so you can bet that there are a number of students who are doing a full 40 hour week job as well as studying, that’s gone up I think in the last two years. Parental income thresholds for student allowances have been frozen again by the current government right up to 2019. Fees keep going up, this year they’ve gone up by three per cent not four per cent, but that’s not a material difference. And of course there are more charges and admin fees and other things in the student loan system than there were. So yes, it is definitely getting more expensive, let alone the fact that particularly around Auckland, and this is huge for students, living costs and rents are just horrific. So we recognise that the one size fits all on accommodation costs is a poor assumption, something needs to be done about that.

What role, if any, do you think tertiary education plays in cultivating an innovation culture?

Oh it’s huge. If you go to any of the great innovation clusters around the world, places like Silicon Valley, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Boston, New York or Seattle. In all of them, great universities are at the absolute heart of the cluster. Why is that? Because universities produce two things: they produce really smart individuals who can add to any business, and secondly, through their research and the creativity that they undertake while they’re students, they come up with lots of ideas. A lot of these ideas are out of the box and disruptive, and the companies need to be able to learn from that. So you see around lots of universities the companies are lined up waiting to take graduates, and the better the universities are, and the more internationally important the cluster is, the more they attract employers and businesses. So one question is whether Auckland could brand itself as a learning cluster, and whether we could be starting to present it as a destination for employers across multiple universities.

How do you think New Zealand compares to other countries in terms of innovation? Like where do we fall short and where do we succeed?

Well, the first thing is that we don’t invest anywhere near as much as we should, so the numbers here are that New Zealand overall invests about one and a quarter per cent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and that’s our national income in research and development. And other comparable countries, like small, smart countries, like Denmark for example invests over two and a half per cent, Finland invests over three percent, Israel and Singapore are both well over three per cent I believe as well. So we’re dreaming if we think we can be a smart, wealthy country unless we invest more in building the intellectual property that earns us those premiums tomorrow. So the first thing is we don’t invest enough. The government doesn’t, and business is even worse. So we have to change the incentives so it pays business to invest in R&D in New Zealand, both basic and commercialization, and that means better use of the tax system, so that we’re not rewarding people for speculating on property, and we are rewarding them for investing in real businesses and smart stuff. It also means that we have better grants system and means that we work with business to identify areas of growing emerging strength, where government and business can work together to create advantage in New Zealand.

And where do you see the future of innovation going in New Zealand?

Well, I think it’s got to be both adding smarts and technology and value to our excellent primary products, so a continuation of investment in our primary sector, and there also needs to be a real resurgence of investment in high value niche manufacturing and services. And in particular, we have quite a strong digital economy in New Zealand with a lot of emerging ICT companies, software, apps and so forth. And I think because those are weightless exports, and it doesn’t matter too much if you’re in the bottom end of the world, that’s an area that we should really be looking at pretty hard. And under the last Labour government we had a very proud track record in that area with our digital strategy, and I’m very keen to make sure that we’re back at the forefront of encouraging smart new tech business, not only to get started here but to flourish. You asked me in the previous question what are we good at and what we’re not, I talked about overall levels of investment. The other thing that stands out about New Zealand is that we’re good at inventing stuff, we’re not as good at marketing, we’re good at starting companies but we’re not good at growing them.

So while we have a high rate of company formation, we have a very high death rate of young companies in their first year or two, with less than 20 per cent of companies living be three years old which is a pretty high die rate. So how can we improve the circumstances for business growth? We now know more about what should be done, and not everything the government is doing is wrong but they just aren’t doing enough of it, or systematically enough. So we need more incubators, we need more venture capital and angel investment. We need better mentoring and skill development for entrepreneurs. We need to cluster better around regional strengths and we need an overarching nationwide strategy for developing high tech and innovation over the next ten years. Labour is working on one with the sector at the moment.

That sounds good. And what are the drivers of technological change and how can a well-crafted innovation policy mitigate against potential risks, both known and unknown?

Well that’s a hard question. What are the drivers? Well the first overwhelming driver is technology itself. The massive explosion of computer processing power is fundamentally shifting not only the way businesses work but how our whole society works, our media, our communications, our businesses. And that is something we really just don’t even know where that’s going to head. But we do know that Moore’s Law, which says that processing power doubles about every 18 months, it doesn’t look like it’s going to run out any time soon. The second thing we have is ubiquity, and that means we can plug in with our devices wherever we are, anytime, and that means that the rise of mobility, people talk about the ‘always on’ society.

So that means that we’re blurring the boundaries between work and leisure, because you’re always carrying your mobile on you, people always know where you are, all sorts of privacy issues arise and digital footprint, your digital privacy, and automation, which flows from computing is likely to have a savage impact on jobs as we know them now. So for those people, and this is really important for students, those people with advanced skills will be much more likely to get a job and hold a job. The number of jobs for people without skills will decrease rapidly. But computer automation is also affecting, and well over the next twenty years, will affect a lot of what we call white collar jobs too. Accountants, lawyers, doctors, a lot of what they currently do will be assisted by, and sometimes replaced by, computers. So we’re in for a time of very turbulent change, and Labour’s Future of Work Commission will be looking hard at the impact of those changes on the way we order our education, our welfare systems, and as we move to a sort of lifelong learning model, where we might change jobs quite often because the jobs might change.

What advice would you give to students looking to enter politics?

Oh, that it’s a big commitment so think really carefully about it. If you’re going to go into politics, do something else first so you can bring some real world experience and skills. And be very, very clear about what your motivations are. It’s a service job, it’s there to help other people, it’s at the end of the day not about the politicians, about the community. If you go in with a service ethic, you can make a difference, I still think it really matters, because the decisions made through the political process affect each and every one of us, every day.

Just going to sneak in one more question. What has the biggest highlight been for you so far in your career?

It was an enormous privilege to be the leader of the Labour party, albeit for a relatively short time and under quite difficult circumstances. But I will never forget the enthusiasm of our campaign teams, the loyal service of so many volunteers and the chance that we had to talk to New Zealand about a higher set of ideals and a better sense of vision than they’re getting from the current government. And I believe that those ideals are timeless, and I think the tide is turning against the government, and I’m now here to support our Labour team in whatever way I can to help us bring change to New Zealanders.

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