Care and share for the future

July 4, 1997

The "comprehensive review" of tertiary education decreed by New Zealand's coalition government will be very different from its many predecessors.

In the past, reviews have been entrusted to hand-picked review bodies, committees, working groups, task forcesI the terminology varying according to fashion. The problem with this form of review is that the choice of members of the review body virtually determines the body's conclusions. Members are chosen for their views. Their preconceptions offer those making submissions from differing viewpoints little opportunity to affect the outcome.

This government's preference for a green paper/white paper process shows it may have an open mind. The green paper, expected in a couple of months, will be followed by a three-month consultation process. The minister has indicated that, even before the green paper, he is prepared to accept submissions regarding the shape and scope of the review.

Universities will argue that the review should ask: "What should tertiary education be expected to deliver over the next 10 to 15 years?" A recent Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development report suggests one answer. The carefully written report on New Zealand tertiary education was part of a ten-nation study and avoids any direct criticism of government policy. But it does point out that New Zealand participation rates in tertiary education are well below the OECD average, and wonders whether the current policy of forcing up tuition fees will help address this problem. It suggests, modestly, that future policy changes be preceded by research into their likely consequences.

The universities endorse this approach. A participation rate at the OECD average is not an unreasonable goal, particularly as our government professes concern about our ability to compete in the new millennium.

But the numbers game, of course, is only part of the answer. We should also be concerned to see that minority and disadvantaged groups are not being excluded, that the quality of our teaching and research is of international standard, that our graduates meet the needs of the economy and society generally.

If the government can be persuaded that these goals are properly those of the community rather than of individuals, it is, hopefully, but a short step to show that their achievement cannot be safely left to individuals. The market may be being harnessed to policy objectives, and students may increasingly see themselves as consumers, but there is a world of difference between a market-driven tertiary sector and one which is policy-directed.

The identification of objectives should imply some effort by policy-makers to secure those objectives, rather than leave them to a market free-for-all in which outcomes are determined by the aggregate of individual decisions. Acceptance of this approach would have major consequences for a whole range of further issues. The structure of the sector is at present determined by an uneasy combination of statutory direction and market competition.

Only those institutions which meet statutory criteria get university status, but there is nothing to stop any institution from trying to make the grade. Nor is there anything to stop non-university institutions from offering degrees. The result is that polytechnics and other non-university providers are constantly tempted by the image and status enjoyed by universities. It looks likely that many of them will crowd up into the university end of the sector, creating problems of quality assurance (to the disadvantage of existing universities) and neglecting the important purposes they are meant to serve.

If, however, the government accepts its responsibility to set and achieve policy goals, it might wish to plan the structure of the sector rather than allow it to be determined by the lottery of whether or not a certain number of polytechnics can satisfy the criteria for university status. This would require a government which has been committed to a free-market ideology to embrace a perhaps unwelcome degree of interventionism. There might be some rewards, however.

Ideology has driven ministers to advocate a "seamless" education system in which everyone can do everything and the market will determine who prevails. A less ideological approach might allow a more sensible version of seamlessness to emerge. The emphasis then would be on issues of access, credit transfer and recognition of prior learning, so that students are increasingly able to move qualifications about and receive proper recognition for their achievements.

Similarly, the vexed question of funding may have to be reconsidered. The government and universities are again caught uneasily between a system of public funding that sets a ceiling on the numbers the public purse will finance and a declining limit on the amount spent per student, and a deliberate attempt to force universities to sell outputs and compete for students as though they were bidding in the market place.

If the government can be brought to accept that it must identify policy goals in the community interest, it surely follows that public funding should be provided at levels and in ways which allow those goals to be met.

The government is taking an intelligent interest in this issue, and looking at options from student vouchers to a modified bulk funding arrangement in which students determine the number and type of publicly funded courses they wish to take.

Its unsurprising objective is to ensure that the tertiary providers are held to account for the public money they receive. Universities will have to reconcile this understandable demand with their own attachment to academic independence. That independence could be threatened just as much by the tyranny of the customer (student or government) as by government intervention. A government commitment to a minimum level of public funding would certainly require, however, corresponding concessions by universities. They would need to acknowledge the public interest in ensuring that public funds are properly spent. A high degree of accountability is not an unreasonable demand.

Universities may also have to reform councils so that more business expertise is applied to university administration. For all parties the review offers a real chance. If the process is free from dogma, and a pragmatic approach is adopted, a course could be agreed which will provide a bright future for New Zealand tertiary education into the 21st century.

Bryan Gould is vice chancellor of Waikato University.

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