The issues confronting New Zealand universities continue to come at us thick and fast. We are not only facing an imminent "comprehensive review" - a condition that now seems obligatory for universities throughout the English-speaking world - but policy proposals on specific issues are now crowding their way on to the agenda as well.
The green paper on the national qualifications framework published earlier this year is a case in point. The green paper is the latest stage in a process that has now gone on for some years. The government wants a statutory framework for the whole education and training sector. It is keen to see the universities and their qualifications take their place on the framework so that it can be seen as comprehensive and the advantages of transparency, portability and comparability can be optimised.
The universities, while not hostile in principle to the idea, have conducted a long campaign to ensure that participation would not mean any erosion of academic independence or any blurring of the criteria that define university status. We have had some success in modifying some of the more extreme proposals but some fundamental concerns remain.
We are still not persuaded that the framework addresses an issue that directly concerns the universities. No one has ever suggested that there is any problem about the value or meaning of a New Zealand university degree. The problem, if there is a problem, arises in respect of degrees offered By polytechnics.
The government conceded some time ago that institutions other than universities could offer degrees. They are now concerned that there may be question marks over the value of those non-university degrees.
The danger is that the attempt to underwrite the value of degrees offered by institutions other than universities may be to undermine the value of university degrees. Instead of solving a problem, the framework may create one by infecting university degrees with the uncertainties surrounding non-university qualifications.
The green paper offers the universities a mixed bag in respect of these long-held concerns. On the one hand, the extreme nonsenses of unit standards as the means of defining degree qualifications have been avoided. On the other hand, the universities are faced with what seems at first sight to be a significant loss of control over their own ability to decide what is or is not a degree.
At present, the universities, through the New Zealand Vice Chancellors' Committee, have a statutory power to approve degree courses and programmes. If the universities are to cooperate with the framework, they would need to seek recognition from the New Zealand Qualifications Authority - a statutory body that would have overall responsibility for and ownership of the scheme - in order to become what the green paper describes as an "approval agency" so that the qualifications they approve can be entered.
The arrangement would be a voluntary one. In principle, it seems, the statutory power provided by the Education Act would remain unaffected, whether or not the universities chose to be part of the framework and whether or not the NZQA could be persuaded to approve the NZVCC as an approval agency.
On one view, the universities would have nothing to lose through cooperation. The decision could be reversed at any time and they would concede nothing of their power to decide what is or is not a university degree. They would merely offer themselves for recognition as the appropriate agency for defining the qualifications that would go on to the framework. But it may not be as simple as that.
Participating in this way would require universities to accept a subordinate role in relation to NZQA, at least for the limited purposes of the framework. The attempt could be made in due course to extend that power relationship - in which the NZVCC's role depended on the NZQA's willingness to recognise it - into other areas. As long as the arrangement was a voluntary one, the universities could always protect themselves against the ambitions of NZQA by withdrawing. But while the current proposal makes no link between the registration of qualifications and the funding of institutions providing them, it would not need a huge change in the attitude of some future government to mean that funding was made conditional on registration. The subordinate relationship of the universities to the statutory body - in an area of real significance to academic independence - would then no longer be a voluntary one.
So should the universities simply stand aside from the whole pro-cess? Tempting though this may seem, it is not problem-free. If the NZVCC will not act as an approval agency, there is nothing to stop the NZQA from recognising other approval agencies for the purpose of approving university qualifications. And a boycott could be politically damaging, enabling our critics to claim confirmation of their view that the universities are irredeemably elitist and will co-operate with the rest of education only if compelled to do so.
As with so much else on our agenda at present, cool heads are required to make considered judgements. Those judgements will have to be made in a context that has itself become more complex. The universities have been engaged in useful talks with officials as they write the green paper that will begin the process of "comprehensive review" of tertiary education to which the government is committed. The even tenor of those discussions was rudely interrupted by the publication of a leaked briefing document indicating that the basis on which the discussions had been proceeding was very different from the proposals being suggested to ministers.
The leaked document paints a picture of universities in the immediate future as commercial companies, obliged to produce a return on capital, run by boards of directors comprising business people appointed by the minister as the sole shareholder, selling their "product" into a competitive market place to individual student customers equipped with vouchers. There is little discussion of desired outcomes. It is assumed that if the mechanics are got right - that is, that the disciplines of the market place are put in place - the outcomes will look after themselves.
The universities are not averse to change. Indeed, we have adapted quickly to changed circumstances and policies over the past decade or so. Nor would we resist a demand- or student-driven funding system. That is, after all, more or less what we have now. What is disconcerting, however, is to find that official thinking is so wedded to a particular ideology and that there is such an easy acceptance of the view that everything that needs to be said about the role of universities can be encapsulated in the provider/customer relationship.
The universities surely have a wider role than meeting their commitments to a myriad of individual customers. Our difficulty is that talking of the national interest or the long-term value of academic independence is so easily portrayed as special pleading. We have, however, no option but to try to get the message across.
Bryan Gould is vice chancellor of the University of Waikato.