Waikato University vice-chancellor Bryan Gould has warned that the way New Zealand's universities are to be funded will favour a few at the expense of the rest.
New Zealand risks sacrificing a world-class university sector in a "fruitless attempt to create just one or two elite institutions that might be ranked alongside the Harvards or Caltechs", Professor Gould says in university magazine On Campus.
Professor Gould told The THES that a focus on institutions, rather than on capabilities, was the problem. "It's futile to try to create institutions that can look Harvard in the eye. If we do, we will end by supporting a lot of stuff that's not very good, and we will also ignore very real research strengths."
His main concern was the Performance-Based Research Fund, to be introduced from 2004. Drawing on the UK's research assessment exercise, the PBRF is a contestable fund that will be allocated depending on universities' past performance. Funding will be distributed proportionally: 60 per cent according to the quality of researchers (based on peer review of research portfolios); 25 per cent from research-degree completions; and 15 per cent from the amount of external research funding gained.
Professor Gould said the concept of centres of research excellence was a superior model as it focused on research capability wherever it occurred and encouraged top-rate researchers to team up to develop projects that should get funding.
Professor Gould said that after ten years of differential funding of institutions, "you can be sure there will be a two-tier system".
He said that the current policy also worked against national interest.
"What is the point of diverting resources into the possibility of creating three or four world-class ideas, if we don't have the skill and infrastructure to ground them in New Zealand? They will be taken off shore."
But tertiary education minister Steve Maharey said he did not believe a two-tier system would evolve. He said the money would be directed towards institutions, rather than researchers, so that poorly performing but strategically important departments could be assisted to "develop their capacity", and to allow the development of unproven researchers.