Blog of the International Sociological Association (ISA)

Intensified Regulation of New Zealand Universities

January 17, 2010 10 Comments

By Charles Crothers, Auckland University of Technology

Given that New Zealand tertiary teaching and research institutions still provide high quality teaching and research for an increasing student body (underwritten by a generous student loans scheme and modest fee levels) and given the wider societal demand for higher education, albeit with relatively limited resources compared to those available in other jurisdictions, Universities in NZ cannot be characterised as being in crisis. They are, however, subject to increasing pressures, many pulling in contradictory directions.

Some of the structural difficulties are external: fighting for a share of the international student market both for students and staff; rising demand as the current international recession continues to bite and sends more into the ranks of those wanting higher qualifications; and a pressure to reduce state budgets shaped by a one-year old center-right government.

But other pressures are internal to the system which is dominated by the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) – run by Commissioners but in effect much like a government department. Indeed a very senior visiting senior academic described the Vice-Chancellors in our system as ‘branch managers’. Over the last decade an ‘audit culture’ has been implemented, largely following UK practice. Thus:

  • individual research performance is monitored annually (by employing organizations) and 6-yearly by the ‘Performance Related Research Fund’ (PBRF), which then reassigns expenditures to universities based on the sum of  quality scores of the individual staff;
  • the development of teaching programs and broad areas of curriculum require centrally-organized approvals;
  • the number of student places is broadly set by the TEC and teaching institutions are penalised if they enrol more than their centrally set quotas;
  • teaching is monitored by a slew of university-specific evaluations designed to control congruence with course goals and to meet student perceptions;
  • emphasis is placed on securing research funding and on commercial applications;
  • traditional disciplines are being embedded within wider operational structures (e.g. Sociology becomes a semi-independent programme within a School of Societies and Cultures) and thereby diluted;
  • the hierarchy of tertiary institutions is becoming reinforced as universities are being pressured to drop pre-degree teaching and as larger, metropolitan-based polytechnics are drawing apart from smaller provincial ones.

The net effects are that:

  • tertiary staff are increasing pressured not only to achieve high quality research outputs published in overseas journals (thus reducing local relevance) but also to secure (usually locally-orientated) research funding, while, at the same time, keeping teaching at a high level of performance as well as carrying out a far higher administrative load that this system inevitably requires.
  • some students are now unable to secure places and, in particular, highly effective ‘bridging programmes’ that ‘staircase’ weak secondary students into tertiary education face cuts;
  • competition among staff and among organizations tends to limit the cooperation required for higher level research activities;
  • arguably, the knowledge produced is increasingly inadequate to support local industrial development or social management, let alone providing social criticism (which is one of the university’s legislated goals).     

The increasing accommodation of Maori and other cultural values and knowledges in the tertiary system is a bright spot, although Maori-controlled universities (“wanaga”) struggle to continue their separate existence, and some staff are offended at what they see as an ethnic politicization.

The pressure on the system as a whole sometimes erupts into situations where academic staff feel their academic freedom to be curtailed, especially under the generalized pressure for knowledge generation to be tied to commercialized innovation. For example, fishing scientists seldom criticize the fishing industry which directly controls much of their data and also its own research operations. In late 2009 the Head of NZ’s security police wrote to various university administrators to warn against making appropriate knowledge and technology available to terrorists, although this was then publicized and thereby the numbing impact was limited.

The difficulties generated have largely been kept ‘under wraps’. Disappointed students quietly fade away, while tranches of staff redundancies seem frequent but garner little if any publicity. The only overt public action has been in late 2009 when the staff in several polytechnics withheld cooperation in assessing end of year exams. They staged marches in support of retaining their existing working conditions and leave entitlements as well as demanding a pay increase higher than the one they were offered. The slow corrosion of the current system and its resourcing means that other strains are likely to become more visible in the future.

10 Comments → “Intensified Regulation of New Zealand Universities”

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