RADICAL plans to change the way New Zealand higher education is funded have been set out in a government green paper published this month.
A purchase model, where the government "buys" the places it wants, is effectively ruled out by the tertiary review paper except for areas where it sees a need for manpower planning such as teaching and nursing.
The paper sets out several choices but emphasises the need for a student-focused, student-driven system, whether bulk funding or entitlements/vouchers, that would share limited resources fairly, increase participation, and minimise financial barriers.
The major choice is between a fixed per-student government subsidy for about five years, or a "floating" rate that would go down - and tuition fees rise - as the numbers participating in tertiary education increased.
Other less favoured options include targeting younger students with a higher subsidy, capping the number of student places, funding priority subject areas first, funding higher quality or more efficient courses and providers ahead of others, or targeting students on the basis of prior achievement.
The plan is open for submissions until December, and will be followed by a white paper.
On tuition fees the paper raises the issue of whether students could make a "co-payment" for all courses, or have the choice of using their subsidy to cover all their costs but for a shorter period.
Other questions are whether the subsidy should differ according to the cost of a course, if it should be paid out on a combination of enrolments and completions, and if government funding should be available to private institutions on the same terms as state institutions.
On research funding, it asks whether all degree providers, or only those offering postgraduate degrees, should be expected to carry out research. Research funding could be allocated on the basis of student enrolments or made available on a contestable basis.
On governance, it suggests governing bodies should have between six and 12 members, with all or most of them ministerial appointments selected for their skills and competence. Chief executives (university vice chancellors and polytechnic directors) would not be members.
Governing councils presently comprise 12 to 20 members, most of them elected and including staff and student representatives.
The governing body would be able to borrow against an institution's assets and future income, and lease or dispose of assets. A capital charge also would be introduced.
Institutions could become a crown company, but would not be required to make a profit. There should be greater institutional autonomy but more transparent accountability.
The term "university" would remain legally protected, to ensure New Zealand's international reputation was maintained, and minimum quality standards would be set for all courses and providers.
More information would be available for students and employers on courses, institutions and costs, and a student database could keep track of students' tertiary education consumption and qualifications.
While the document contains more options than a draft ministerial briefing paper leaked to the media last month, it has received a sceptical response from staff unions and student associations.
Association of University Staff president Ian Beveridge said it was inevitable that student fees would rise. Staff would not be satisifed with zero salary increases yet the paper did not touch on the issue although salaries comprise a major cost for universities.
The national students' association criticised the paper for failing to tackle the question of increased student fees over the past five years.
The vice chancellors' committee is keeping a low profile until it has considered its united response. But at least one vice chancellor, while welcoming the consultative nature of the paper, believes the entitlement system is still the government's preferred option.
Canterbury University vice chancellor Albert Brownlie said he thought the government favoured a more direct voucher system. But there was no need for such a change as all the government wanted to achieve could be done By modifying the bulk funding system, a form of voucher system.
The most positive response has come from the Association of Polytechnics, which said the paper had moved a long way from the profit-seeking corporatised approach of the leaked briefing paper.