New Zealand government assumes power over universities

New controls will ‘only be used when absolutely necessary’, minister assures educators

March 27, 2020
New Zealand, parliament, government
Source: iStock
New Zealand parliament buildings

New Zealand’s universities have ceded their autonomy, as the government asserts its authority to avert an escalation of Covid-19 infections.

Education minister Chris Hipkins said amendments to the Education Act gave the education secretary the power to issue “binding directions” to the governing authorities of education providers, including universities.

They include requiring universities to open or close and to operate or be controlled or managed in certain ways. The secretary can also “direct them to provide education in specified ways, for example through distance or online learning”.

“Education entities in New Zealand have a large degree of autonomy and in normal times this works well,” Mr Hipkins said. “In an emergency such as this we need to move to a different way of working to allow central direction, co-ordination and cohesion and to move quickly to deal with issues as they emerge.

“This decision was not taken lightly,” he added. “These powers will only be used when absolutely necessary. Academic freedom is specifically preserved in this change.”

The country’s eight universities closed for four weeks from 25 March, as the country moved to “level four” restrictions consigning most people to their homes. Campuses are shuttered to all but essential staff. Libraries and many other services have moved online, although on-campus student accommodation remains open.

Some universities, including Massey, Lincoln and Auckland University of Technology, have suspended classes until mid-April. Others such as Auckland and Waikato universities plan to resume online classes from 30 March.

“We are all in this together,” the University of Canterbury announced on its website. “Our buildings are going to miss their people, but we’ll be back soon,” said Victoria University of Wellington. “These spaces will be teeming with life and ideas again soon, if we stick to the plan.”

New Zealand has moved relatively rapidly into lockdown, despite having about one-tenth as many coronavirus cases as neighbouring Australia.

Modelling by the University of Auckland’s Te Pūnaha Matatini Centre for Complex Systems and Networks found that the action could save tens of thousands of lives, with a potential coronavirus death toll of more than 80,000 - as rapid infections overwhelmed medical facilities - reduced to fewer than two dozen.

In Australia, all universities have moved their teaching substantially or completely offline. Monash University has suspended all on-campus activities until 30 April, while the Australian National University (ANU) is closed until at least 27 June.

The ANU has announced an additional A$1 million (£490,000) of “emergency grant funding” to help students meet the costs of accommodation, travel groceries, textbooks, computing equipment and medical costs.

It has also deferred its census date, beyond which students incur tuition fee debts, until 8 May. “This will give you time to get used to remote learning,” said vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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