Why should you care whether we have universities?

19 June 2023

ChangeTertiary Education System

Why should you care whether we have universities? A timely question given that today we are not only anticipating the irrecoverable loss of portions of numerous New Zealand universities, we are also contemplating the inevitability of wider–ranging future cuts. It is worth understanding what we are losing. And why.

We have universities because they are an essential social infrastructure, critical for a healthy and vibrant democratic society. The European Council's Lisbon Convention states that education " a human right ... which is instrumental in the pursuit and advancement of knowledge, [it] constitutes an exceptionally rich cultural and scientific asset for both individuals and society ... [it] should play a vital role in promoting peace, mutual understanding and tolerance, and in creating mutual confidence among peoples and nations ... [it is] an exceptional asset which should be fully respected".

The loss of intellectual talent, the breadth of opportunities curtailed, the economic damage these cuts inflict, all have been recounted in the media by many of my colleagues and other supporters of the universities. Research over the last decade has demonstrated the challenges universities are experiencing as the result of a complex and interconnected set of forces acting from without upon the sector and its leaders (Marshall, 2018; Sutherland and Marshall, 2023).

The immediate problem is a financial one. Some say it is a problem opportunistically created by the government to exert greater control over a sector disparaged as complacent and unwilling to direct its energies towards the economic and political priorities of the moment. The Prime Minister has described the sector as autonomous. He knows this is, at best, a half–truth and misleading. The government directly controls the available revenue, both public and private, through the Tertiary Education Commission. The government also actively proscribes how and where universities may teach and it has regularly imposed unfunded costs upon the sector in service of its political objectives.

In an attempt to deflect culpability, some politicians blame a failure of university management. Other critics point at name changes and branding as evidence of poor leadership priorities without realising that a focus on prestige, marketing, image and rankings are direct consequences of the neoliberal market model forced upon the sector by the government in the 1980s and 1990s.

What management team could address the sequence of crises and long–term deliberate underfunding the universities have endured? The sector has seen funding below the rate of inflation for more than a decade and now operates with 20% less money in real terms. Then there are the substantial new compliance requirements imposing millions of dollars of costs upon the universities with no attempt to provide financial support to mitigate these costs. This is on top off a deeply unfair differential in funding rates that punishes some universities more than others, creating a distorted operating environment where fees are disconnected from the costs particular to different locations. Add to this the exposure of the universities to the risks of international student funding pushed by successive governments maintaining deliberate policy pressures to create an export–led market model for education. Treating people no differently than milk powder and frozen lamb.

Successive governments ignoring the duty of care to a critical social infrastructure, battered by earthquakes and a pandemic, have only worsened the situation. Victoria University of Wellington’s deteriorating operating conditions were exacerbated by damage from multiple earthquakes forcing it to address building repairs through debt. Insurance costs escalating well above inflation and ongoing strengthening work to meet new building codes continue to burden Victoria. Every university weathered pandemic expenses without governmental assistance, even as private companies were generously supported with public funds.

It has been widely reported that over $300 million remains unspent in the tertiary education budget this year alone. The decision by the government not to address these issues by utilizing funding already budgeted for provides more evidence that the degradation of the sector must be a deliberate political strategy—a dedication to a neoliberal market model of education framed predominantly on achieving short–term economic goals.

Commitment to this market driven model is leaving universities exposed to unpredictable shifts in student numbers and consequently at ongoing risk of failing to meet its regulatory and financial obligations. The damage caused by many years of neglect has removed the buffers that long–ago might have allowed this risk to be effectively managed. We are now looking at a sector that is edging, crisis–by–crisis, towards collapse. The harsh reality is that, even after the current cuts, this greater collapse will remain probable, even certain, as long as the existing broken funding and regulatory model remains in place.

What is needed in the short term? An immediate acknowledgement by the government of its duty of care. The funds budgeted for the sector need be urgently dispersed in proportion to the average sizes of the universities prior to the pandemic in order to address the inequality of the impact of the last few years. This is not new money. It is money the government already expected to spend and should use for the purpose allocated to protect further harm.

And in the longer term? The funding model must shift to a public infrastructure model, investing in a scale of opportunity for communities operating over a span of decades rather than years. It is essential that university funding is sustainable in real terms over longer periods and not susceptible to rapid changes in student numbers or random crises.

The onus is not entirely on the side of the government. This shift in financial model is not to protect a complacent and established system. The forces driving the need for change pre–date the pandemic and expose issues beyond the merely financial. Universities need to develop and grow to reflect the needs of new generations. This transformation must be enacted in a collegial partnership with the entire community. It should not be inflicted through a manufactured financial crisis nor manipulated by the short–term political self–interest of the government of the moment.

These changes require investment in the intellectual and social infrastructure of the university to ensure that transformation can occur. An immediate lift in funding is critically important if we are to maintain the resources, capacity, capability, and energy needed to provide the essential university education and research necessary for the dynamic and complex future we face. Failure to do this is a deliberate choice by government to damage the social infrastructure of this country for current and future generations. It will be a legacy of shame for Chris Hipkins, Jan Tinetti and their colleagues.

Why do we have universities? We have them to provide the tools for society as a whole to engage with the challenges people currently face while building resilience and capacity for emerging challenges. We have learnt the importance of preparedness for crises such as earthquakes and pandemics. We are already learning to respond to the climate emergency, the impact of social media, the damage caused from colonisation and other issues. And we are starting to realise the need to prepare society for the impact of artificial intelligence, to harness it and potentially protect ourselves from it. The new and the unexpected will continue to call on our collective capabilities.

We have universities to ensure we are nurturing and developing human intellectual capability for the benefit of a diverse, vibrant and healthy society. A society that includes all people, not just those with wealth or those exploiting talent for profit.

[Also published on LinkedIn]

References Council of Europe. (1997). Convention on the recognition of qualifications concerning higher education in the European region. Strasbourg, France: Council of Europe.

Marshall, S. (2018) Shaping the University of the Future: Using Technology to Catalyse Change in University Learning and Teaching. Sydney, Australia: Springer.

Sutherland, K. & Marshall, S. (2023). Education for all? Higher education at a crossroads in Aotearoa New Zealand. In F. Lo (Ed.) Oxford Handbook on Higher Education in Asia (pp. 755-773). Oxford: Oxford University Press.