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University system at a crossroads as review takes submissions

Image: Westend61, via Getty Images

Scientists and universities lay out differing visions for New Zealand’s higher education sector

New Zealand’s universities are “lurching forward toward an unstable fate”, an advisory group reviewing the higher education system has been warned.

The New Zealand Association of Scientists’ submission to the University Advisory Group says that universities’ “primary functions” of learning, teaching, research and being the “critic and conscience of society” should be supported, but not at the cost of “functions and capacity in areas key to an advanced economy”.

The association argues for more differentiation between universities: “Good models that sit between a single University of New Zealand and eight separate, competing universities must be identified and tested.”

It says that public research institutions should be given an equal place alongside the work done by universities. It questions whether “an ever-growing portion of society should be educated through university degrees”.

“It is likely that most areas of research expertise are better concentrated in a few rather than all universities,” it says, adding that many research institutions had found New Zealand’s doctoral graduates not to be “work-ready”.

Mission-based research, such as that carried out in Centres of Research Excellence, may be the best way to meet national goals, it says, but the CoRE system is severely underfunded. “Funding either needs to be tripled or quadrupled or these bodies canned and combined with other funding…to rebuild coherent excellence in a sustainable form within clusters of activity,” it says.

The University Advisory Group will report to higher education minister Penny Simmonds in August on changes needed to the higher education system and the Performance-Based Research Fund, which supports university research. The group is chaired by former chief scientific adviser Peter Gluckman, who is also chairing a parallel Science System Advisory Group.

More collaboration, less competition

The Royal Society of New Zealand also argues in its submission to the University Advisory Group for greater differentiation of universities “based on areas of strength, with each institution having a distinctive mission and focus”.

The society outlines a vision involving “well-rounded graduates”, active Māori involvement and accessible education, where “freedom in science and scholarly activity are enabled and safeguarded, and responsible evidence-based public engagement and debate is encouraged”.

The society’s submission says: “The university sector needs to be sustainably resourced, with diverse and complementary institutions that offer internationally recognised education and research. Funding has not kept pace with costs, and universities have been struggling to undertake their primary roles, which needs to be addressed for the sustainability of the sector in the long term.”

Issues around staff retention and nurturing emerging research also need to be addressed, beyond the successful Rutherford fellowships and the new Tāwhia te Mana Research Fellowships, the society says.

University concerns

Universities New Zealand’s submission argues against specialisation, saying it is a strength to have eight high-quality and comprehensive universities across the country.

“We see that the future of New Zealand is increasingly built around a knowledge economy where higher education is the key to success,” the UNZ submission says.

“Rather than trying to create more specialisation or differentiation in the university system, we think that there should be more specialisation and differentiation between the different subsectors—particularly universities and institutes of technology or polytechnics.”

New Zealand’s Tertiary Education Strategy is too vulnerable to political change and is “so high level that it doesn’t really drive sensible long-term decisions around policy settings or investment settings”, the vice-chancellors’ group says.

UNZ chair Cheryl de la Rey said in a statement on 4 June that “New Zealand significantly lags behind OECD averages in key areas like business investment in research, researchers per capita and open-access publishing of findings”.

Although New Zealand’s universities generally perform at a high level, the advisory group process is raising questions about the role of universities, she wrote.

“At the forefront of our thinking is that more than 60 per cent of jobs now require at least two and increasingly three years of post-school training or education,” she said.  

“Beyond teaching, we also know that maintaining vibrant research activities at universities brings benefits across society. Universities account for over half of New Zealand’s fundamental research output, which underpins innovation and workforce development across sectors,” she wrote.

Solutions to New Zealand’s research “lag” could include “prioritising applied doctoral research closely tied to industry needs, reducing workforce precarity through more sustainable research funding models and facilitating better connectivity between academic experts and public or private sector partners who can utilise their insights”.

Pivotal role

The Tertiary Education Union’s submission says that universities have a “pivotal role to play in ensuring a more equitable, just and sustainable society”.

It emphasises working conditions, critical thinking, free speech and respecting the Treaty of Waitangi, which contains principles for the protection of Māori culture.

“To ensure the long-term viability of our universities, including their capacity to uphold the functions and principles outlined above, we need a funding system that is fit for purpose,” the union says.

A “fees-free model” in some areas should enable “barrier-free access” to higher education, it adds.

It criticises the current university management model for being “bureaucratic” and “inequitable” and having “ineffective and inflexible managerial hierarchies”.