The devil is in the detail

January 29, 1999

Bryan Gould says the New Zealand government's 'fair' proposals threaten the universities' international standing

Unlike the United Kingdom or Australia, New Zealand retains a differentiated higher education sector. Universities remain universities. Polytechnics remain polytechnics. But it is not quite as simple as that.

Polytechnics are entitled to offer degrees and many do. The problem is that polytechnic degrees do not, on the whole, enjoy the same esteem as university degrees. One reason for this, according to the universities at least, is that the universities have a stronger research record than the polytechnics.

For the polytechnics to compete with the universities in research, even if they could afford to, would take them well wide of their original responsibilities to vocational education, which remains valuable and important, and would open them up to competition in vocational education from a burgeoning private sector. Yet, if they do not, they will lose out to the universities in the business of providing degrees.

One or two of the large metropolitan polytechnics are on the verge of becoming universities, already offering a wide range of degree courses and building a research profile. Their ambitions are resisted by the universities and by those who say there are too many universities already. It is inevitable that if meeting particular criteria is the path to university status, some polytechnics will eventually do so.

At the other end of the scale are small and barely viable institutions set up to meet the needs of a locality or region but which are now struggling to survive.

It is against this background that we awaited the white paper that at last appeared just before Christmas. It could have been worse. But it delivers a couple of hammer blows that will do great damage to the universities if it is ever implemented.

The first is a proposal called a "variable tuition subsidy" which will mean a reduced subsidy for asset-rich institutions with the savings passed on to poorer institutions.

Because universities are on the whole larger, longer established and more demanding of capital, this arrangement will lead to a substantial net transfer of resources to the polytechnics. If this proposal should ever see the light of day, the impact on the universities could be very substantial.

The second hammer blow looks more innocuous. The government has long wanted a mechanism for monitoring the research outcomes delivered in return for the resources provided to universities for their general research (as distinct from the project-based research which is separately funded through the ministry of research, science and technology).

The white paper proposes withdrawing NZ$100 million (Pounds 32 million) from the general tuition subsidy and placing NZ$20 million of that (rising over time to NZ$80 million) in a separate contestable fund. That fund would then be allocated on the basis of research achievements, perhaps using an adapted version of the UK grading system. While all tertiary institutions would be able to apply to the fund, universities would no doubt take the largest share. The balance of the NZ$100 million would be allocated to all institutions awarding degrees, through top-ups provided for undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate degrees.

As so often, the devil is in the detail. On closer examination, it is clear that the NZ$100M will come exclusively from the money directed at present to postgraduate degree programmes - the virtually exclusive preserve of the universities. That money will then be recycled into both the contestable fund and into the top-up subsidies for degree programmes. Because the polytechnics also offer degrees, they will benefit from the top-up. There will be, it is estimated, a net flow of about NZ$7.5 million from the universities to the polytechnics.

This haemorrhage is bad enough. The policy implications are even less acceptable. The rate of financial support for postgraduate research will be sharply reduced. New Zealand universities, already strapped for cash, will be hard-pressed to sustain, let alone expand, their research programmes since every research degree will cost the university a large sum of money. It is hard to imagine a more certain recipe for destroying the New Zealand research effort.

It is equally hard to imagine a government deliberately setting out to achieve such an outcome. One can only conclude that the government has not understood the implications of its proposal.

These blows are delivered in the name of a search for fairness between different parts of the sector which seems at first glance to be commendable. It makes sense only, however, if all institutions are trying to achieve the same purposes, with the same needs for the same resources.

This is manifestly not the case. The universities and the polytechnics fulfil very different roles, making very different demands. Universities are, almost by definition, more expensive institutions. We could certainly fund universities and polytechnics at the same level but we should not then be surprised if equally funded institutions produce broadly equal outcomes. To reduce their funding even further will be to threaten their claim to be recognised internationally as worthy of the name of university.

The real explanation of the white paper, however, is that it has very little to do with fairness. The government's real concern is for the viability of the weaker polytechnics. Unwilling to find new money, they have exploited the ever-present tendency to regard the universities as a pampered elite, dressed it up in the guise of fairness, and found resources for the polytechnics at the expense of the universities. Thus is tertiary education policy made.

Bryan Gould is vice-chancellor of the University of Waikato

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