Hard News by Russell Brown

Exceeding well over?

If the Herald on Sunday can't find a better lead story than yesterday's, it should … try harder. Under the heading '$50,000 a day: the princely sum you're paying for Charles' NZ visit', the paper declared that New Zealanders were "forking out $50,000 a day for the privilege of hosting Prince Charles - despite his personal wealth exceeding well over $1 billion."

It continued with the expected elements of a desperate beat-up - a rent-a-quote from Deborah Coddington, and a list of how many hip operations (why is it always hip operations?) or teacher salaries $50,000 would buy. Curiously enough, by the time the story appeared on the Herald website yesterday lunchtime, it had been "updated" - that is, considerably toned down.

So why do we pay for Charles' visit? Because until such time as other constitutional arrangements are made, he is our head of state in waiting. Our laws are crafted in his mother's name. And, frankly, it's not a bad deal. We keep a household for the Crown's local agent, but apart from that all the pomp is paid for by someone else - except when, once in a blue moon, he pays a visit.

At which time he becomes our guest, even if he has effectively invited himself. And not just any guest, but one with a genuine need for security protection. (In Australia, the taxpayer coughed up $1 million for a seven-day tour, so we seem to be getting away quite cheaply.) Just what sort of pissant little country would we be if we seriously demanded that he go Dutch, so to speak, for the privilege of being walked around some representative delights? Of course we wouldn't, which is what made the story so silly.

On the other hand - and I really must stop aligning myself with a man who has a haircut like a 1970s bus driver - I liked John Roughan's column in the Weekend Herald. Much as I would expect to see us make the break and become a republic eventually, I agree with Roughan that Charles "would make a pretty decent King," and, like him, I don't really understand the enmity the man attracts.

Having been making use of Wellington Internet cafes last week, I was interested in Nicky Hager's story on the potential hazards of doing your Internet banking in public. But what really amazed me is that Hager's hacker was able to waltz into a net café and install a key-logger, presumably without permission. Any competent operator should not allow his customers to install shit on a public computer. They should be wholly locked down.

But such is the monstrous insecurity of the Windows platform that account holders are equally, if not more, at risk at home. A survey last year found that more than two million Americans had had money stolen from their accounts in the past 12 months, adding up to a total loss of more than $2 billion. Phishing scams still seem to be a bigger problem than local password capture, but it may be that a more robust "two factor" model will become more common.

But it won't be free: the ASB/Bank Direct Netcode system, introduced three months ago, is recommended only for transactions over $2500 and the user pays 25 cents a pop to receive a text message containing a short-lived security key. Citibank's new "virtual keyboard", which replaces keystrokes with mouse clicks - seems a simpler solution.

Oh, and if you thought using an ATM was inherently safe, the redoubtable Ross Anderson of Cambridge University has some news for you.

Anyway, I'm back from what turned out to be a rather tiring trip to Wellington - and I have a card that identifies me as a "Fringe artist", which I quite like the sound of. I picked up the new Metro magazine to read the "alternative radio" feature story on the flight home. It's largely accurate, although the part about digital radio is gibberish (and the slogan was "Other radio stations are shit" and not "All other stations are shit"). I do think the is-bFM-getting-too-professional-and-thus-losing-its credibility angle is getting tired (there goes that same disaffected DJ) but it's nice to see the point made about the creative policy. The day that b lets agencies devise its advertising is really the day that it's over.

But I was surprised to discover that the most interesting thing in the magazine was sometime national candidate Allan Peachey's thoughtful extract from his new book, on the topic of NCEA. I had Peachey pegged as a windbag - and he's still a bit pompous - but it is a relief to read a considered assessment of how and why the new system came to be (it goes all the way back to Lockwood Smith's tenure as education minister), what went wrong and why it's still a better option than norm-referencing.

Also, Ruth Laugesen in the SST provided a welcome backgrounder to the current tertiary funding controversy:

Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics executive director

Jim Doyle remembers warning incoming Labour MPs in 1999 what they would face when they took office.

"I said: 'You do realise the tertiary sector has gone feral. I don't know how you will get them back in the cage.' It's much easier to open the gate and let the animals out, than 10 years, 15 years later, trying to get them back in."

The rules of the jungle were unveiled by Labour in 1989, when tertiary institutions stopped being funded regardless, and started being funded on the basis of how many students they attracted. The EFTS - or equivalent fulltime students - funding system came in with student fees and student loans.

It heralded a transformation of tertiary education from something reserved for a small elite to something accessible to the masses. People who had never dreamed of going on to higher learning found it was easier than ever before to get into the hallowed halls.

Participation in tertiary education shot up through the '90s, as tertiary institutions were rewarded for getting bums on seats, and as funding was spread thinly but widely, including to private training institutions.

National ministers basked in figures that showed soaring numbers in higher education, although a few people started to worry about why we were turning out so many accountants and business graduates, and so few plumbers.

Eager to encourage even more consumer choice for students, National made a watershed decision in its last days in office. Until then, there had been a cap on student growth of 5% a year at each institution, with ministers sitting around a table each year to decide who would get extra funding for new courses or new students.

That restraint was dropped in a 1998 decision by education minister Wyatt Creech, taking effect from 1999. There was to be "no limit on subsidised student numbers", and no attempt to try to "bias students' decisions towards one type of course or institution over another".

The customer would be king, and the government would pick up the tab. The results were startling.

"All of a sudden, there were potentially four million equivalent fulltime students out there," says Doyle. "You had the combination of a highly competitive environment, and then a massive opportunity all of a sudden that was presented."

It's all very well for David Farrar to declare education to be in a melt-down and crisis, but he really should acknowledge the background here.

But I was alarmed to see Metro declare bowling clubs to be "Not Hot" ("That little joke is over folks"), what with us having an event at the Grey Lynn Bowling Club, 112 Surrey Crescent, Grey Lynn, Auckland, this coming Sunday. Great Blend 2, with the kind assistance of Karajoz Coffee Company, kicks off at 4pm, and the programme will feature an introductory speech from moi, David Slack talking about and reading a little from his next book, a media panel discussion featuring John Campbell, Gemma Gracewood, Noelle McCarthy and Damian Christie, and a performance from The Checks. It's free and there are still a few RSVP places available. Click here to invite yourself.

PS: Thanks to those of you who pointed out the typo in the Keith Sinclair Great New Zealand Argument that had Maori male suffrage in 1967 rather than 1867, but the proofreading prize goes to Brent Jackson of Salient, who kindly advised me of six other minor errors. Much appreciated.