Why we should beg to differ

June 23, 2000

Is it beneficial to differentiate between universities and polytechnics? Bryan Gould ponders the problem.

When is a university not a university? This question is agitating New Zealand's new Labour government.

Different answers have been offered in different countries. In the United Kingdom, the answer was provided by the stroke of a pen when the distinction between universities and polytechnics was simply swept away. The response to this by the old universities has been the invention of new mechanisms and criteria by which the distinction can be re-established - not necessarily corresponding to the original dividing line but still providing pretty clear distinctions.

A similar abolition of the university/polytechnic dichotomy was introduced in Australia, where the response from the old universities has been similar, if less clear-cut.

In New Zealand, universities and polytechnics are separately defined in statute, and the distinction is jealously guarded by the universities. University ranks were recently extended by the recognition of a former polytechnic as having met the statutory criteria for university status. An application from another polytechnic has, however, come to grief.

The Unitech Polytechnic was confident of showing that it met the statutory criteria, though this was doubted throughout the university sector. The application was, however, brought to a premature end by the government's introduction of a bill that precludes the minister from increasing the number of universities beyond the present total of eight.

This is consistent with the constant references by ministers - both before and after last year's general election - to the importance of differentiation within the tertiary sector. The new government sees advantages to distinct roles for universities and polytechnics - something that is music to the ears of universities.

But the distinctions are not as clear as they were. Polytechnics have been lured into direct competition with universities. Most polytechnics have no hope of winning and this competition has diverted them from what might be regarded as their proper role.

At the same time, maintaining this role has become more difficult as they have been attacked by private training establishments, which the last government was keen to promote. Many smaller polytechnics are struggling to maintain academic credibility and financial viability. It seems unlikely that this particular horse can be put back behind the stable door. So, the precise meaning of "differentiation" in the ministerial vocabulary is still unclear.

The universities, however, are clear. For them, the differentiation rests on the universities' obligation to undertake teaching "informed by research". It is research, and teaching informed by research, that constitute the true value of the universities' contribution to the national interest - and it is this that warrants (unlike the present funding arrangements) a special rate of funding.

It is likely that ministers share this view. But they would also say that this does not mean that any less value is given to the contribution made by polytechnics. Indeed, ministers might well argue that a differentiation would allow polytechnics to deliver more effectively the special functions that only they can perform.

So far, so good. But ministers also talk about replacing the competitive model promoted by the previous government with "collaboration and cooperation". How are institutions to collaborate if they are differentiated?

Both universities and polytechnics have shown some interest in collaboration within their respective sectors.

The universities are talking to each other about, and in some cases already acting on, proposals for collaboration on research projects and on jointly purchasing expensive equipment. Polytechnics have produced ideas, as yet not adopted, for entering mergers and other cooperative arrangements.

But there are more far-reaching possibilities. The University of Waikato has pioneered a ground-breaking tertiary alliance that brings together the university and five - and perhaps soon six or seven - regional polytechnics. The alliance has concentrated on credit transfer arrangements, so that students can take an established credit value for their polytechnic qualifications and put it towards a university degree.

There are discussions about taking the arrangement forward to create a sort of federal institution, with distributed campuses, each of which might concentrate on particular specialisms. An arrangement of this sort would help to sustain the viability of individual polytechnics, whose continued role is crucial to the government's regional policy. It would allow the stronger polytechnics' qualifications to match university qualifications. It might even lead to a restoration of the principle that degrees are awarded only by universities.

Most of all, it would deliver something that would almost certainly accord well with the government's general philosophy - the chance of optimising tertiary education for students.

The advantages to individual students would be considerable. They could begin their tertiary education close to home, in institutions with a truly local or regional identity. The functions of universities on the one hand and polytechnics on the other would remain distinct and the differentiation would follow a more logical dividing line than at present.

At the same time, students and others would no longer suffer from the competition between different sorts of institutions, which at present frustrates students and institutions alike.

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

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