Concentration can dilute

October 27, 2000

The issues facing tertiary education in New Zealand will be depressingly familiar to Britain, says Bryan Gould

No New Zealand government feels comfortable until it has set up a working party, task force or commission to look at the issues confronting its tertiary education. True to form, the Labor government elected last year has established a tertiary education advisory commission that has published a first report setting out a programme the commission will undertake over the next 12 to 15 months.

The report contains some good things, but the somewhat leisurely nature of the proposed timetable is surprising. This is hardly virgin territory. It has been well tilled in recent years. If the commission is to go beyond the work of its many predecessors, what tasks should it be set? What questions should it address that have not already been answered by other inquiries?

There is little point asking the commission to draw up a set of goals. This has been done countless times and amounts to little more than a wish list that means little unless related to some indication of willingness to provide the necessary resources.

Issues of resources are specifically excluded from the commission's terms of reference, but the situation may not be as unpromising as it seems. The education select committee has said that it will conduct an inquiry into the resourcing of tertiary education. If the outcomes of both inquiries run in parallel and are read together, we might at last get an indication of how desirable ends can be linked to practical means.

Over the past decade, funding per student has fallen so sharply and fees have risen so steeply that the deterrent effect on the numbers going on to university is now unmistakable. But it is not only numbers that have been affected by government policy: quality has been hit as well. An Australian graduate will have had 50 per cent more spent on his or her university education than a New Zealand graduate. New Zealand universities use their resources more efficiently, but such a disparity in resources must affect quality. And Australian colleagues complain that they too are underfunded in comparison with the United Kingdom or the United States.

It is the government's responsibility is to ensure that our community invests a proper share of our resources in higher education - both in research and in teaching. In the end, it does not matter whether this is done through the public or the private purse. The test should be the purely pragmatic one of what works best.

It so happens that New Zealand has traditionally funded tertiary education from the public purse, in the belief that it delivers a public benefit and is best secured by public funding. It is possible that we could adopt a different model, more like the US one, in which students and others buy the various outputs of tertiary education in the market. But there are good practical and social reasons to suppose this would not happen overnight and might never deliver the assurance of participation levels and the other outputs we want as a community.

The threat to tertiary education is intensified by continuing talk about concentrating our resources on just two or three elite research universities that would carry the responsibility for the nation's research effort. But a university that is not funded to do research, and therefore does not do so, cannot claim the status of a university in the international academic community. This bright idea is, in other words, really a prescription for a large polytechnic sector and a small university sector of just two or three universities for the whole of New Zealand - a country not manifestly over-provided with university education.

Supporters of the concentration of resources profess to be in favour of innovation, but the strategy is, in essence, risk-averse. It suggests that research will be funded only for known and prescribed outcomes. This is to fly in the face of all we know about the essence of scholarship and research - that it is a voyage of discovery whose most valuable outcomes are often the least expected. This is the seminal idea that has underpinned so much of human progress over the past 500 years. To concentrate resources on two or three elite institutions would be to deny this truth and would fatally undermine the creativity and diversity we desperately need.

These issues will all be depressingly familiar to those in the British tertiary sector. New Zealand's commission will also address another familiar issue - the structure of the sector and the differentiation or otherwise of its different parts. New Zealand has never taken the fateful step of converting all polytechnics into universities, but polytechnics are permitted to award degrees. This has been enough to tempt many to seek "parity of esteem" with universities, with the inevitable conclusion that the only way to obtain that is to become a university.

The problem posed in New Zealand is the one familiar to the British tertiary sector: if the polytechnics become universities, who will do the job of the polytechnics, and if no one does, does it matter? And there is a further question: should difficulties of financial viability and academic credibility be assumed to be - by virtue of the polytechnic's degree-awarding powers - those of the universities as well, and should the universities therefore be subjected to the same solutions? The universities, resentful of increasing central government intervention in quality assurance and financial management, are tempted to give a clear and not very polite answer.

The commission will continue to grapple with these issues. But, if past form is any guide, its reports will be pretexts for delay rather than spurs to action - and that may be their saving grace.

Bryan Gould is vice-chancellor of Waikato University.

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