New Zealanders’ faith in universities on the rise

Perceptions of higher education immune to political leanings, study finds

June 13, 2019
Regaining trust
Source: iStock

New Zealanders have become more trusting of their universities, and their trust is evenly spread across the political spectrum, new research suggests.

Forty-three per cent of Kiwis place their trust in universities – up from 30 per cent last year – according to a survey commissioned by the Victoria University of Wellington (VUW) Institute for Governance and Policy Studies.

The survey, now in its third year, grilled 1,000 New Zealanders about their faith in various institutions and occupational groups, their perceptions of government and their satisfaction with life. Asked how much they trusted universities to “do the right thing”, 5 per cent said they had “complete” trust and 38 per cent said they had “lots of” trust. Another 45 per cent had “some” trust.

Institute director Simon Chapple said the results were a surprise. “I’m a bit puzzled, as an insider, that trust in universities has been rising. I can’t think of any events that would have pushed it up,” he said.

Dr Chapple said New Zealanders’ esteem for higher education appeared not to have been affected by the outcry over Victoria’s failed attempt to change its name, or by free speech controversies such as Massey University’s postponement of an address by former political leader Don Brash over concerns that it would be seen as condoning racism.

Nor had faith in universities been dented by longer-term perceptions of grade inflation or “a marked decline in educational standards”, Dr Chapple said.

He said another surprise was that people’s political leanings made little difference to their trust in higher education. “It’s an institution that’s socially accepted across the spectrum,” he said.

“There were differences across the spectrum for the other major educational institutions, but not universities.”

Schools, for instance, were mistrusted by people on the left but trusted by those on the centre-left and right. Views about police and big business exhibited a somewhat similar “left-right gradient”.

The government’s staged elimination of tertiary education fees – a move decried in conservative circles, thought to have helped the Labour Party win the 2017 election – does not seem to have nudged views about universities along party political lines. “I suspect that was seen as a government policy rather than something the universities were responsible for,” Dr Chapple said.

“People with university degrees were fairly evenly spread across the political spectrum,” he added.

Overall, the survey found that New Zealanders identified as centre-left were the most trusting political grouping, while people on the left tended to have least trust in institutions such as the police, the church and big and small business.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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