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$1m fund for digital skills

Sarah Putt, Contributor. 05 July 2018, 8:54 am

Some good news this week with the announcement that the Coalition Government will create a $1 million contestable fund for providers of digital skills.

According to a statement  by Education Minister Chris Hipkins and Associate Education Minister Tracey Martin, the money will come from "Crown baselines" and doesn't require any new appropriation. "The funding has been reprioritised from underspends in the Tertiary Education Vote in the 2017/18 years."

Martin points out this is part of the commitment made in the Labour and New Zealand Coalition Agreement to restore funding for computers in homes programmes in this parliamentary term.

Lawrence Millar from the 20/20 Trust, which runs the Computers In Homes programme has welcomed the new fund and says "it is the first step by the Coalition Government to address digital exclusion." The organisation had been previously disappointed when there was no provision for funding made in the Budget in May.

"There are still 100,000 school-aged children without internet access at home, and they continue to be a priority group for investment. Their exclusion drives a wedge into New Zealand society, affecting education, employability and social inclusion for generations," Millar says.

As previously noted in Techblog, students are able to access fast, reliable, safe, uncapped internet during school hours following the Network for Learning rollout that occurred as part of the Ultra Fast Broadband initiative. But after school many students don't have access to a reliable internet connection to do their homework, study and just enjoy the benefits of being connected.

Technology entrepreneur Derek Handley raised the issue in a speech during TechWeek. He said New Zealand will fail to become a leading digital nation if it doesn't address the number of children without internet access in their homes. In the speech he noted that these students are often reliant on the local library for internet access.

"Many of them (students) use cheap Android phones without data plans, to connect to WiFi - to search, type up essays and assignments, on their tiny screens," he says. "Many of the homes they go back to might have only a handful of books. In their homes, they are barely connected to the present - let alone the future."

InternetNZ has called for a target for New Zealand for Universal Access, and in its Solving the Digital Divides Together  report it claims that internet access is a basic service. "We believe that Internet access will shortly become a core necessity (similar to housing, sustenance, clothing medical care and necessary social services) to stay a connected member of society. If we are to continue to grow as a country we all need access to the internet and the ability to use it."

Meanwhile the 20/20 Trust, which has been drawing on its reserves since its funding was stopped in June 2017, will be looking at ways it can "align our operations to match the expectations of the government," says Millar.

"The Government has recognised digital inclusion as a priority and has set an aspirational goal to close digital divides by the year 2020. More than 19,000 families have gained digital access and skills since 2001 as a result of participation in 20/20 Trust programmes, and the Trust is widely recognised as a significant contributor to digital inclusion in New Zealand."


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