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Funding cuts for universities ‘are more than mere scratches’

Image: Trevor Williams, via Getty images

As science system review opens, vice-chancellors call New Zealand’s university funding crisis “real and urgent”

Universities New Zealand has warned that reviews of the country’s science and education systems must fix major funding gaps.

In an opinion piece published on the website of the vice-chancellors’ group on 16 April, chief executive Chris Whelan compared ongoing funding cuts and uncertainty to a Monty Python sketch in which a character loses limbs “one by one”.

“I’d really like this to not be an analogy for research in the university system, but it’s starting to feel like one,” he wrote. “The cuts are more than mere scratches now. It’s getting harder.”

The government announced on 27 March that two advisory groups would be set up to lead reviews of the science system and the education system. Public submissions to the science group are now open, closing on 17 May.

Writing about the importance of the science review, Whelan said that of the NZ$1.3 billion that universities spent on research in 2022, NZ$301 million came from the Performance-Based Research Fund and NZ$419m from other government funding.

“None of this funding has increased at all since 2018, but inflation has been nearly 25 per cent,” he wrote.

Universities will be unable to produce more postgraduate qualified workers with the current level of funding, he said, adding that “there’s even more insecurity now for our postdoctoral research workforce” due to the way projects are funded.

Challenges and opportunities

A day later, the group’s chair Cheryl de la Rey, vice-chancellor of the University of Canterbury, published a piece welcoming the appointment of former chief science adviser Peter Gluckman to chair the government’s advisory groups for both science and education.

However, she said there was “a real and urgent funding gap that needs to be addressed”.

“Government controls 80 per cent of university sector income. That income has only grown by 8 per cent since 2019, but inflation has grown by 21 per cent.”

De la Rey called for “long-term settings that will deliver a better university system for whatever our country will look like in 10 or 20 years. I can personally see a number of opportunities and I look forward to proposing and discussing them with the [university] advisory group.”