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August 11, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage | [ssba]

An Interview with Steven Joyce


Tell us about university: where did you go and when were you there?

I went to Massey University, from 1981 to 1985 in Palmerston North. I did a Vet intermediate and didn’t quite make the cut for Vet School so I did a Zoology degree for two years. In the first three years, I passed all my papers: I was very excited. In my fourth year, I was doing Economics papers. I sat six and passed three. In my fifth year I enrolled for three and passed none.

What’s changed since then?

Nothing really. It’s hard to say what’s changed because I’m not there now, but they were much smaller back then. And of course, radio has changed to some degree – we [the student radio station] were the first FM radio station in Palmerston North.

Tell us more about the radio station.

There was a bunch of us at university who thought we would like to be in radio, but we were insecure enough to think that people wouldn’t hire us. The group was made up of Jeremy Corbett, myself and three other guys. We decided we would start our own radio station. We decided all this during the 1984 snap election when we were doing a Radio Massey current-affairs programme, which are sort of like the Insight documentaries that Radio NZ does but really low budget.

We did all these interviews with politicians, and it was novel because student radio didn’t really do current affairs. We were conscious of the fact there wasn’t a large audience and the ones who were listening probably just wanted to hear a track from Joy Division. We went on every night for a week, and after that, a bunch of us realised we wanted to do radio. We did our first summer broadcast in New Plymouth in the summer of ‘84/‘85, went back for the next summer and moved to full time in 1987.

And then you worked your way up to eventually own RadioWorks.

Yeah, we owned the first one between us. We had about 51 per cent of Energy FM, then bought Tauranga, and then Hamilton, Taupo and Rotorua and Hawke’s Bay. We ended up with about 650 staff and 22 markets at RadioWorks. And it all started from us wanting to play REM on the radio. Initially, we weren’t even that entrepreneurial: we just wanted a decent radio station. That was our gig.

What was your favourite band back then?

It’s always been pretty eclectic. A bit of Hunters & Collectors, The Cure, I was an REM fan early on, U2 was great early on. All sorts of things, just a whole range. Prince. I had a mate of mine who made me recognise Prince’s artistic talent.

A lot of students think you listen to dramatic opera in the dark while you’re scheming and plotting the next funding cut.

[Laughs] Not at all. I learnt the piano when I was a kid, so I always have enjoyed classical music. That’s why my taste is so eclectic.

Do you like any hip-hop?

No, didn’t really get into hip-hop, for some reason.

There’s speculation that you would like to be the next leader of the National Party. Is that true?

No, it’s not something I’m interested in at all. For a start, the PM is going to be around for a long time. The second thing is that I think I get to do a huge amount working with industries like the tertiary sector. You don’t get to do that in the big job. He [John Key] works harder than me and he has to front everything. I get to do things in portfolio areas. I’m very happy and privileged to be doing what I’m doing.


National has moved to remove the requirement that a student sits on the governing body of the university. Can you give us an example of when a tertiary institution would benefit from not having student representation on the university council?

Well, firstly, I’m not sure that’s the test. The test is: are councils looking after students? That’s a bigger test than whether students are on the councils or not. I feel it’s a bit moot anyway, because my strong view is that the universities, all of them or nearly all of them, will put a student rep on their councils anyway.

What I don’t want to do is enshrine it in the Act. Next thing you know, students and the general staff and the academic staff and the CTU [Council of Trade Unions] and the employer’s representative and the mayor all want designated spots. I actually think we should trust the councils and the universities to make the call about their own constitutions.

It’s strange that you say you do want students represented, but then you’re taking away the requirement that they are.

My view is that they will be on, because in practice that’s what universities will do. I think we should trust them to be smart enough – I mean, we already trust them with billions of taxpayer dollars, so we should trust them to make the right calls for their institution.

The Budget this year showed a shift towards funding STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] subjects and research. What place do you think Arts degrees have in New Zealand?

Well, I think they have a very strong place, and I don’t have any concerns that we have weakness there. In fact, if anything, we are slightly overdone in Arts and Social Sciences. If you look at our international rankings, we tend to do best in those spaces, and not so well in the Applied Science and Engineering areas. Compared to Australia, we fund Commerce and Arts at a much higher level than they do. It has been much more profitable in the past for universities to add Arts or Commerce students. That’s because STEM subjects, with labs and practicums and so on, are much more expensive to provide. Not surprisingly, we end up with more Arts students.

Quiz time: how much do you get per week for your weekly Student Allowance? [$175.96]]

It’s about 170-something. It goes up with inflation so changes slightly all the time. I should add that it only started going up with inflation under this government.

The average rent in central Wellington? [$155]

I don’t know the answer, but I would be careful to assess that. I don’t know the per-room rate of a student in Wellington.

Rents are often drastically different in different cities, so would you consider tying student loans to the cost of living in each specific centre?

I think we have to be really careful, because that would be one of the things students factor in when they choose where to study. The unintended consequences of that could be that more students study in bigger cities.

The NZ Union of Students’ Associations have come out recently with documents showing that you had considered decreasing course-related costs from $1000 to $500. Will you do that if you win this year?

No, we are not considering decreasing course-related costs. We’ve made our call on that – we feel it’s in the right place now.

​The documents also suggested you may be cutting the Student Allowance availability period from 5 years to 3 years. Will that happen?​ I note that this would have stopped you from getting an Allowance in your last two years of university.

There’s no plans to change that. And actually, for me, I should have moved on in that fifth year. Our sense is that overall it’s in the right place.

If National gets back in, would it consider putting interest back on Student Loans?

No. That’s out.

How do you think Voluntary Student Membership has changed universities?

I think it’s great in principle that people are no longer forced to belong to an association. I think different institutions have been successful, some more than others. There’s work in progress on compulsory Student Service Levies. I’d still like to see a more robust critique of those from student reps, and I am happy to look closely at making sure that levies are only going up by how much they need to go up and that the services that are being provided are fairly costed. And we need more discipline around that. It’s important that student money goes to things that students value.


At the last election, only 42 per cent of 18–24-year-olds voted. What would you say to those people this time round?

I’d say get in there in and vote, and think about what it is that you want for your country and vote. In some ways, as I said on the TV last week, it’s a healthy skepticism, but If you don’t vote you can’t complain. And you should have a look at what it means for your future to vote either way, and if possible, get out and vote.

Why should a student vote National when parties like Internet MANA and the Greens are saying—

[Interrupts] Here’s the news. Students won’t vote en masse for Internet MANA. Two reasons. One, they’re smarter than that – they know nothing in life is ultimately free. Somebody has to pay. And they understand there is a balance of things.

So why should they vote National? Because ultimately, we are delivering a stronger New Zealand in an economic sense. If people are talking about job opportunities or the opportunity to grow a business or working in interesting occupations once they leave university, then I am absolutely 100 per cent convinced that they’ll get far more choice and far better incomes if they choose a National government. That means they have the option of being in New Zealand and being successful in New Zealand. And they’ll have a much better chance under us than under the alternative.

How much harder do you think it would be for National to win the election if John Key wasn’t a member?

Well, fortunately, that doesn’t come up for discussion. Look, we’ve got a great team, and we’ve got a great PM, and you can’t divide the two. He’s a great Prime Minister for New Zealand, he’s also got a great team. So you can’t divide one without the other. He’s going to be, in my view, around for a long time yet.

I think that’s all the questions I have.

I see you were going to ask me about Labour’s tertiary package, but I don’t think they’ve got one. There’s nothing on their website. Presumably they will announce it eventually.

See the full unedited version here.


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