Tertiary education is key to future economic success so where's the funding? asks Bryan Gould
Universities have few political friends. On the right, they are seen as constantly holding out their hands for public funds when they should be earning their living and paying their way in the competitive marketplace. On the left, they are seen as the pampered and greedy part of the education sector, gobbling up funds that would be better employed helping pre-schoolers and primary education.
At first glance, this is a surprising state of affairs. The broad proposition that economic success in the future depends on investment today in education - and particularly higher education - is widely accepted.
The demand for university education has never been greater. And the governments of most developed countries are full of university graduates who might be expected to place considerable value on extending to others the advantages they have enjoyed.
Leading politicians without a university education may be prejudiced against those who they think are the beneficiaries of educational privilege. These graduates of the "university of life" may be less than wholly sympathetic to the continued claims of others to advantages that are seen not only as differential but also irrelevant and unnecessary.
Yet in New Zealand, as in many other countries, the ranks of government ministers also boast many former university teachers.
Surely they would have a better appreciation than most of the value of universities and the importance of resourcing them properly?
But in many cases, former university teachers are among the least sympathetic to the cause, mainly because many may be out of date in their attitudes towards universities. They may feel that they know all that there is to know about the claims and complaints of today's generation of university leaders. They may believe that they are better placed than others to view with a proper dose of realism the special pleading of those with their own interests to advance.
Former university teachers' experiences of the universities of the 1970s or 1980s may be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding the current situation of universities. In the past decade or so, universities have changed enormously. They were once the preserve of white, male, middle-class high-achievers who stayed on the education conveyor belt after secondary school. But today, at the University of Waikato, for example, nearly 60 per cent of students are women, 50 per cent are not school-leavers, 20 per cent are Maori and 10 per cent are from overseas.
In former days, university education was, on the whole, free to students, and universities were almost entirely funded by central government grant. Today, my own university receives just over 40 per cent of its total revenue from government grant and that proportion is falling sharply. Students pay thousands of dollars in tuition fees and can run up debts of tens of thousands of dollars by the time they have completed their studies. Funding per student has fallen by 30 per cent over the past decade.
Students are now much more like customers. They want to ensure that they get value for money. They are aware that they are buyers in a competitive marketplace.
University leaders and managers now run a business, albeit an unusually complicated one. They are as rigorously accountable for both the financial and academic performance of their institutions as any private-sector manager. And university teachers, too, find that their working lives have changed enormously.
Politicians who are unaware of these dramatic changes persist in believing that the university sector enjoys a margin of surplus funding that allows it to sustain further cuts. Indeed, some politicians believe that this is not a regrettable necessity but may actually be a useful spur to securing efficiencies that might otherwise be unobtainable.
In New Zealand at least, the point was long ago reached when the cuts were made into fat. Continuing cuts reach deep into muscle and bone.
The danger is that the effect of these cuts, doing real damage as they are, will not be seen until it is too late. For tertiary education, the consequence of continuing cuts will not be a crisis, a single moment of dramatic collapse. It will be a long process of attrition, of declining morale and of standards under pressure.
As tertiary education has increasingly become indistinguishable from compulsory education and as participation rates have risen sharply, the cost has risen to the point that politicians have been unwilling to ask taxpayers to foot the bill. They have opted instead for trying to shift the financial burden from the public to the private purse. For a country such as New Zealand where there is no tradition of privately funding education, the one certainty is the reduction in public funding with no assurance that the private purse will make up the difference.
The one bright spot is that, while the tide may not actually have turned, it may have stopped going out. After a long stand-off earlier in the year between universities and the government over a fee stabilisation proposal, the government found additional funds of more than NZ$35 million (£10 million). For the first time in more than a decade, the level of public funding per student will not actually fall. Perhaps our politicians are at last catching up with reality.
Bryan Gould is vice-chancellor of the University of Waikato.