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NZ universities ‘must be more active in national policy debate’


Vice-chancellor wants institutions to lead the conversation on overcoming Covid-19 and forging a sustainable future

New Zealand’s universities must play a more active role in national policy debate about the country’s recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, University of Auckland vice-chancellor Dawn Freshwater has said.

Freshwater, a forensic psychologist who took on the role in March, has suggested that NZ universities need to work more closely with government and businesses to broaden their relevance.

In an editorial published by the New Zealand Herald news website, she says universities need to ask how they can support local communities while also focusing on “core business” such as research productivity.

“The epidemic has taught us all some harsh lessons. We need to learn from them if we are to find a sustainable future for our universities and the country, because the fate of both are inextricably linked,” she writes.

“In times of significant disruption, such as now with Covid-19, our instinct may be to cling to tradition while simultaneously pursuing the impulse to forge new paths. Our recent experiences of moving to online learning and working from home are evidence of our ability to transform.”

Freshwater is the first woman to be appointed vice-chancellor of the university in its 137-year history. She was previously vice-chancellor of the University of Western Australia, where she set up a public policy institute to work with Asia-Pacific governments on regional and national challenges.

“Covid-19 has left our cultural and economic institutions reeling. From Air New Zealand and the entire tourism industry to many well-known stores and restaurants, the epidemic has left organisations shattered and futures at risk. And, as a nation, we need to support the institutions that anchor our society socially, economically and culturally,” Freshwater says.

“Universities are no different. We have lost significant revenue and continue to incur costs.”

She says public debate has questioned the cost of NZ’s higher education system, including who should be paying for it and how much it is worth.

“Our national higher education debate needs to broaden to consider these issues of purpose and value. As a sector, are we ready for this conversation and to respond to where it may lead us? More importantly, are we ready to lead the conversation that our nation deserves and requires of us to ensure a sustainable future for the next generation of New Zealanders?”