NZ suffered 'state control'

April 7, 2000

New Zealand universities have suffered unprecedented attacks on academic freedom by central government over the past 13 years, a union inquiry has claimed.

Donald Savage, commissioned by the Association of University Staff to produce a report on academic freedom, found that the shift began under Labour in the 1980s and continued under the National Party, whose third term in office ended last November.

"The protagonists wanted to see universities become private institutions, funded by student fees and research contracts," said Mr Savage.

He said this had led to more state control and managerial rather than collegiate structures. "Although the university community resisted these attacks ... the consequent warfare has been debilitating, has eroded morale and has undermined academic freedom and institutional autonomy."

This was despite the new Labour government indicating a willingness to work with the universities rather than fight them.

Mr Savage highlighted the "Australasian enthusiasm" for speech codes that regulate what academics can say off campus about university management issues or controversial public issues.

"Since private corporations routinely forbid their employees from discussing their internal activities in public and frown on controversial public activities by their employees, so, it is suggested, universities should do the same. The report rejects this approach," said Mr Savage.

He made a number of recommendations about relations between government and universities. These included: ensuring university autonomy on qualification accreditation; the government's dropping ownership claims on universities; and providing proper funding to maximise independent research.

Mr Savage said there was concern about the decline of collegiate self-government. One answer, he said, would be to strengthen the role of academic boards or senates and for boards to investigate how open their universities were and how openness could be extended.

Mr Savage, retired executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, the AUS's Canadian sister organisation, worked as a consultant on Unesco's first-draft statement on academic freedom in 1997. He is now based at Concordia University, Ottawa.

Last year Mr Savage visited New Zealand's seven established university campuses and met academics and senior management, business organisations, education ministry officials and the then tertiary education minister.

His report is to be released later this year.

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