NZ universities seek distinction

October 21, 2005

New Zealand's universities are aiming to differentiate themselves clearly from the country's polytechnics, writes Richard Thomson in Wellington.

The universities hope discussions with the Government and unions in the Universities Tripartite Forum will recognise that their situation differs qualitatively from that of polytechnics. Half the academic workforce comes from overseas, and vice-chancellors say universities must be better funded to compete in an international market.

Unions say academic salaries lag behind those in Australia by 20 per cent and those in Britain by 47 per cent. They argued for a national pay settlement, but it was opposed by vice-chancellors.

It is understood that the forum was set up after the Government said no funds would be forthcoming without a joint approach from institutions and staff.

Vice-chancellors are also worried by student numbers, which have become static after years of growth. In this situation, vice-chancellors find it hard to manage changes in students' course selections, and campus costs, which follow international trends, rise very quickly.

One solution would be to limit entry to courses, which is done now only in a few professional courses, such as medicine. Doing so could ease the way for the Government to increase student funding. Vice-chancellors want funding parity with Australian universities, which would require NZ$400 million (£160 million) more a year.

Another plan thought to be under discussion is a two-tier system recognising universities' more costly operating environment. Although the introduction of the Performance-Based Research Fund (similar to the UK's research assessment exercise) has eased this problem, New Zealand funds its university courses at the same rate as polytechnic courses.

Meanwhile, polytechnics have their own financial difficulties. Funding tied to student numbers left many small institutions struggling for survival, although domestic growth and foreign students helped stave off the problem.

Tertiary education enrolment grew from 178,000 in 2001 to 307,000 in 2004, but growth was overwhelmingly in low-level courses such as basic computing and "life skills" run by polytechnics and Maori higher education institutions. These courses were cheap to run, but their educational benefits were less clear. In one case, a polytechnic was made to repay NZ$3.5 million when it emerged that more than 40 per cent of the 18,000 students enrolled on a free CD-based computing course had never put the disks into their computers.

The Government responded by slashing community education funding and putting the money into a "Quality Reinvestment Programme". Although this programme is intended to direct money towards areas of strategic importance, it will have the effect of supporting small weak institutions in the regions.

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