By Michael Neill FRSNZ

“The Labour Party promises to make all tertiary education free by 2024, and this is an admirable goal; but unless it is accompanied by a serious re-thinking of the nature, purpose, and funding base of our universities it will only lead to further decline.”

New Zealanders with an interest in education will have been encouraged by news (NZ Herald, 10 June) regarding the performance of NZ universities in the QS World University Rankings, especially since it shows the University of Auckland having risen two places to 81st. Rather less impressive are its placings in the Times Higher Education and Research Organization Registry (ROR) lists (179= and 217 respectively). But even these latter figures disguise the real decline in educational values that has occurred over the last three decades — one largely attributable to the neo-liberal policies that have dominated this country since the advent of Rogernomics in the mid-1980s.

Roger Douglas and other members of the Lange government were themselves the beneficiaries of a system that (like the ones that still exist in more enlightened European countries, including Germany, Sweden, and Denmark) offered free tuition — augmented in most cases by financial support in the form of a bursary. But it was Douglasites who, believing that ‘higher education is a business like any other’, insisted that, while primary and secondary education might exist for the public good, tertiary education was simply a ‘private good’ which should no longer be funded by the state. Successive governments then progressively reduced their contribution to the cost of each student’s education, forcing universities to maximise their recruitment of high-paying overseas applicants, even as they imposed increasingly substantial fees upon New Zealand students.

Perhaps the most telling detail in the rankings is the revelation that while New Zealand universities generally rank highest on the proportions of overseas students [32%], they perform least well on staff-student ratios [1:22]. The University of Auckland has been especially successful in attracting overseas students, even as its proportion of academic staff has declined. Such students are overwhelmingly attracted to practical disciplines like Engineering and Business (whose current dominance is displayed in magnificent new buildings); while the prospect of graduating with a burden of substantial debt has pushed local enrolments in the same direction, as well as towards disciplines like Law that seem to promise greater financial rewards.

The effect has been to discount the traditional idea of education as something valuable in its own right; and this has disproportionately damaged the more ‘academic’ areas of study such as pure science, music, and the humanities. Staff reductions have had a particularly bad effect on small group teaching. In the Faculty of Arts the allowable maximum for tutorials has increased from 15 to 30 – a full lecture class in most respectable universities; but many courses are no longer able to offer tutorials at all, relying entirely on lectures that can involve hundreds of students, while providing no real forum in which students can test, exchange, and  develop their own ideas. At the same time, an exaggerated emphasis on the importance of ‘research outputs’ (another source of funding), has led to students being ‘actively discouraged’ from visiting staff offices for face-to-face discussion.

To take one example of what has happened, the Auckland English Department, which at its height was one of the strongest centres of literary study in Australasia, boasting 30 full time staff, has been reduced to a mere 13. The temporary tutorships which supported its postgraduate students and maintained its tutorial system have been defunded; while the reduction in permanent staff numbers has inevitably resulted in a significant cutback of course offerings. This in turn has led to a decline in student enrolments that has itself been used to justify further staff cuts. Other humanities subjects have been forced into a similar downward spiral; yet it is only the capacity for independent critical thought nurtured by such disciplines that can enable universities to fulfil their statutory role as ‘the critic and conscience of society’.

Learning resources have also been serious depleted: financial cuts have seriously affected the General Library’s ability to keep up with current worldwide publications, while specialist libraries in Fine Arts, Music, and Architecture have been closed altogether

The outcome of all these developments is that students — whom the managerial culture now in charge our universities prefers to describe as ‘clients’ or ‘customers’– are increasingly cheated of the very rewards that appear to be promised by such language. And the situation can only get worse: the dangerous over-dependence upon income from overseas students has been exposed by the COVID-19 crisis, as Simon Collins’s most recent article (13 June) reveals: facing a consequent loss of $100m, Auckland’s new Vice-Chancellor predicts further staff cuts in addition to those — worth $9.5m – that she has already made.

The Labour Party promises to make all tertiary education free by 2024; and this is an admirable goal; but unless it is accompanied by a serious re-thinking of the nature, purpose, and funding base of our universities it will only lead to further decline. The primary reason for the very existence of tertiary institutions, after all, is to provide the best possible education in all fields to the young people of this country: universities are not ‘businesses’ but (to use an embarrassingly old-fashioned phrase) institutions of higher learning.

Michael Neill is a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand (FRSNZ) and Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Auckland.

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author’s views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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