Universities are happy to work with the government, but they do not want to be directed solely by market or political dictates, Bryan Gould writes
Too many lawyers and accountants? Not enough scientists and engineers? The second report from New Zealand's tertiary education advisory commission says that the country's universities should be more responsive to the national interest and should produce the graduates that the economy really needs.
New Zealand certainly needs to shift the emphasis. The country needs to focus more on those areas that will add value to the national expertise in primary production - the life sciences, information technology and technical and engineering skills. Its economic future depends on developing new products, on providing those processes that add value but are at the moment undertaken overseas and on taking control over the whole production chain - from farm gate to the consumer's plate.
There is general agreement as to what is required. The report breaks new ground by suggesting that the universities carry the central responsibility for correcting the imbalance and ensuring that tomorrow's students turn away from the traditional professions and management and look instead to science-based occupations.
It is here that the doubts intrude. At the University of Waikato, all our students are volunteers. They come because they want to study the programmes we offer. We have the country's largest and best management school, not because we dragoon students to come but because that is what they want to study. If the government insisted, we could turn away students who wanted to pursue courses the government did not like, but it would be a little more difficult to make students come to study subjects in which they had no interest.
The problem is not one the universities alone can solve. No one would be more delighted than the universities if we had more students wanting to enrol in the sciences.
But if the country wants more scientists and engineers, other changes need to take place. First, we need a school system that prepares more students in maths and physics. Second, the universities need to be funded adequately for courses that are more expensive in terms of equipment and lab facilities. And third, we need an economy that shows it values these skills by offering graduates good jobs and rewarding salaries. Without these wider changes, in government policy and in society's attitudes, the notion that major change can be achieved simply by manpower controls at the point of entry to university is well wide of the mark.
Although it might seem a good idea to cut duplication in law and management studies so that, for example, there might be just one law school instead of five, do we really want to lose the distinctive and valuable features of, for example, the Waikato law degree, with its emphasis on treaty law and the social context of law?
This is not to say that a move away from short-term, exclusively market considerations is not long overdue. The market is an unsatisfactory master, imposing a narrow, short-term perspective and requiring universities to respond to every movement in whim or fashion. If the customer is always king, this can be as great a threat to academic independence as direct government intervention.
The proposed tertiary education commission will presumably provide insulation against direct market pressures, particularly if it operates a funding system that is not driven exclusively by markets and numbers.
It is widely agreed that universities should be responsive to national needs and not just to consumer demands. The danger here is that what is already happening might be overlooked. The universities are already collaborating in and helping the national interest.
New Zealand universities pool their autonomy, to a degree unique in the international context, in approving and assuring the quality of their offerings and in avoiding unnecessary duplication.
The University of Waikato already works closely with regional polytechnics, through a consortium called the Tertiary Alliance, providing credit-transfer arrangements of some sophistication as well as collaborative arrangements in staff development and in library and information-technology provision. Moreover, we are more than happy to join with other universities in buying expensive pieces of equipment, and we collaborate effectively in attracting overseas students to New Zealand.
If collaboration is seen as desirable, as it clearly is, it would be foolish to overlook what is already being done and the possibilities of extending that still further. It is not only inter-university cooperation that is being undertaken. We can and should continue to develop close relations with local business and the private sector generally. The notion that collaboration can only happen, and that competition can only be displaced, if central government intervenes is, in other words, a misapprehension.
The report takes a welcome look at some important issues and proposes a refreshing change of direction. Partnership with government is something we can all sign up to. But it is collaboration, not central direction, that should be the name of the game.
Bryan Gould is vice-chancellor of the University of Waikato, New Zealand.