The ark must be protected

April 4, 1997

For most university sectors in the English-speaking world and beyond, being subjected to review by one agency or another now seems to be a virtually permanent condition of existence.

New Zealand universities - indeed the tertiary sector as a whole - are no exception. Like their British and Australian counterparts, New Zealand institutions are now faced with what the newly formed coalition government has described as a "fundamental review".

The genesis of the review is a commitment undertaken during last year's election campaign by the junior coalition partner, New Zealand First. In negotiating the coalition agreement, the party was able to persuade its National Party senior partner to take on the commitment to a review of the tertiary sector.

Initially, New Zealand First's purpose in suggesting the review seems to have been a populist wish to ensure that the universities were delivering "value for money". As the proposal has been developed by the coalition government, however, it is likely to be much more comprehensive in scope.

The New Zealand vice chancellors' committee has welcomed this widening of the review's scope. We are hopeful that a review which sets itself the broad task of deciding what the tertiary sector should be expected to deliver, and what are the most appropriate funding and institutional arrangements for doing so, offers us a possible escape route from what has been, in recent years, an overly ideological approach to tertiary education by government.

This may be over-optimistic. But there are some signs that the present education minister may be ready to soften some of the sharper edges of a policy which has seen funding per student reduced to the point where the government grant, for my university at least, now accounts for less than half its total income.

The universities will naturally be keen to make their submissions, both to officials during the preparation of the promised green paper and then during the process of formal consultation once the green paper is published and prior to the production of a white paper on which legislation will be based. But even on the most optimistic assumptions as to how far our views will be listened to and acted upon, we would be wise not to pin too many hopes on a major shift in policy direction.

This is because, whatever we may hope for from short-term changes in policy emphasis, the broad outlook for universities and the developing context in which they operate are unlikely to change very much. With the perceived constraints on public funding and a rising level of demand, it is odds-on that the market will play a greater and greater role in the provision of tertiary education, and that the implications of this will be of great significance to universities as we move into the new century.

Any review of tertiary education must take account of these implications. Whether they are welcome or not is hardly the point. We cannot avoid the future simply because we do not like the look of it.

We are already seeing the shape of things to come. As students pay more and more for their tertiary education (and in New Zealand that means at present about 25 per cent of their tuition costs), they are sure to behave more and more like consumers in the market-place. They will be more demanding, more critical of what they are offered and more inclined to seek remedies if they are dissatisfied.

Universities will, as a consequence, have to devise improved and clearer procedures for monitoring quality, for investigating complaints and providing adequate remedies, and for protecting academic and other staff against unjustified complaints.

The student as customer will have a much wider influence as well. Universities will find that they have to compete for custom in a market-place which is increasingly competitive. They will find it necessary to become much more customer-focussed, tailoring the courses, programmes, teaching techniques and administrative procedures to meet the needs of their customers. Open learning, in which students learn in their own time and pursue programmes with multiple points of entry, will become the norm. Market competition will bear other fruit. Markets usually lead, at least when they are functioning competitively, to greater differentiation of product. Before long, the differentiation will lead institutions to concentrate on their most saleable products - in other words, to specialise. But special- isation could spell the end of the comprehensive, broad-range university. If the consequence is not to be cut-throat and, ultimately, destructively inappropriate competition, universities will find it in their interests to reach agreement on who does what. We should expect more and more inter-university agreements for this purpose.

This would be a considerable revolution. But it would not stop there. If universities are to specialise, there will be some very awkward matters of internal policy to resolve. Resources will have to be moved within universities from academic areas which are less in demand to those where demand is buoyant. Universities, quite understandably, have traditionally been slow to respond to market signals and have little experience of reducing staff levels in such circumstances. It will be a difficult learning experience.

But perhaps the greatest concern arising from the greater influence of the market is the threat it poses to that ark of the covenant - academic independence. We are all accustomed to the thought that direct government intervention is an obvious and objectionable denial of academic freedom. What may not be so obvious is that the "free market" may be an equally tyrannical dictator.

If the customer is king and meeting market demand is the necessary condition of survival, much of the universities' independence could be lost. The market may be a less monolithic and recognisable master than government but its dictates may be equally difficult to ignore.

The threat to quality is equally clear. If students regard themselves as customers, and their tertiary education as a product which they purchase, they are likely to have a well-developed view of what it is they are buying. What they expect to get for their money is unlikely to be simply the opportunity to pursue a particular course or programme.

What students will want for their money is the qualification they are aiming at, and institutions will come under heavy pressure from their customers to deliver the goods. Increasingly, a failure to qualify will be seen by the customer as a failure of the provider.

To describe a future such as this is not necessarily to welcome or endorse it. Universities, in New Zealand as elsewhere, may need to prepare for that future while at the same time warning policy-makers of the downside.

It may be, for example, that policy should be deliberately framed to maintain a certain level of public funding so that the harsher dictates of the market are modified.

The case for the public funding of tertiary education is to be made, of course, on other grounds as well - most notably that the community has a clear interest in achieving a quality and quantity of education which the market alone is unlikely to deliver. But any fundamental review of tertiary education should at least recognise the need to reconcile the growing power of the market with the traditional interests of the community.

Bryan Gould is vice chancellor of the University of Waikato, New Zealand.

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