What should be the primary functions of universities for a contemporary world?

10 June 2024

ChangeTertiary Education System

Hopefully many folk in the sector have contributed to the work of the University Advisory Group established by the government to "consider challenges and opportunities for improvement in the university sector, including the role of the Performance Based Research Fund; ways to best achieve equity for all learners; and the role of international education" ( This is my submission. Hopefully others will be made available soon also. This is a submission made personally and may not reflect the position of my employer.

1. What should be the primary functions of universities for a contemporary world?

We have universities because they are an essential social infrastructure, critical for a healthy and vibrant democratic society. The European Council's Lisbon Convention (1997) 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".

Much of this benefit is attributed to the way the degree has and continues to operate as a positional signal of human capability and status (Marshall, 2018, p. 124-128). The University degree is a powerful tool enabling people to move globally and be recognised for employment and residency in many countries beyond their own. It provides a reference point for employers and professions, enabling global commerce and industry.

The employment and economic value of universities is thus largely accepted. Less well recognised is the role the university system plays as a social infrastructure, an institution of society in its most encompassing sense (Waks, 2007), empowering communities to sustain themselves in a dynamic and challenging world. The role of universities as critic and conscience is not a privilege. It is a responsibility and an obligation, providing a mechanism for society to respond to change in an evidence-informed, analytical and critical way. This responsibility is critical. It is too easy to fixate on the qualification system and regulate the system on that basis. In so doing governments damage the capacity of the university to challenge the fundamental assumptions underpinning economic orthodoxy and employment models.

The disruptions arising from technological and political change in the next few years mean a generational shift in the framing of the university is probable and necessary. Technology is a significant driver of growth and social change, which has accelerated through the last two centuries. The development of the current generation of artificial intelligence tools and the credible pathways for growth in AI capability, scale and impact in the next few years, imply dramatic shifts in the way our society and economy undertake knowledge work. Evidence is growing that as well as enabling experts to be more productive, these tools will improve the productivity of naïve practitioners to the levels of well-trained professionals. Some suggest this will simply drive another round of role shifting and retraining. Others see a less positive, short-term impact of a reduction in well-paid and skilled jobs with no employment alternatives given the footprint of AI change across multiple professions simultaneously.

Connected to technological change is a public discourse polarised and energised by the rise of an attention economy, interconnected with political movements that are adopting increasingly nationalistic and divisive agendas. In part, these reflect the impact of social media and the commercial interests of multinational corporations profiting from the attention economy. They also reflect the way that globalised media has provided a level of visibility to radical and extreme views and facilitated the movement of capital and political influence in ways that are liable to generate widespread harm (Klein, 2007). Related to these is the tension nationally and globally arising from historical and growing inequality. This is seen in the increasing concentration of wealth in private hands away from the public sector. It is also seen in the conflict between those who wish to see equality for people of diverse cultures, identities and communities and those who wish to sustain a dominant and homogenous culture.

How we conduct science is not immune to the impact of change. As a young biochemist I was awarded a PhD in part for a body of DNA evidence that today can be gathered in minutes by a semi-skilled technician. At the time of my graduate studies, a PhD could be obtained for generating the structural model of a protein. Now, AI tools generate high quality models of every known protein, enabling enormously important work on drug discovery. This is important to our future but means much more science is now done with fewer technicians and scientists. These powerful AI tools force society to grapple with the social consequences of their use by economic and political interests.

What these challenges have in common is that any engagement with them requires the use of complex knowledge from multiple domains, including skill in analysing multi-dimensional and dynamic problems. Practitioners also need discipline in using effective methods to generate compelling evidence and insight to advise society on the implications and options each challenge represents. These are challenges that increasingly speak to fundamental questions regarding the nature of humanity and how our society builds and sustains human dignity and values. Ironically, as our need for knowledge and guidance for society on how to navigate these complex challenges grows, many countries are degrading the capability of the university system, both through cuts to the humanities and social sciences, and through a generalised degradation of the capacity of the university to devote its energies to address these and other societal needs and opportunities.

Providing a spine of intellectual rigor, independent of the corrupting influences of politics, economics and other conflicts of interest; Creating new knowledge in response to the stimulus provided by change by building upon the shoulders of giants; Enabling a diversity of perspectives to be brought forth, recognised and respected; Generating the confidence and imagination that underpins genuine and positive leadership. These are the primary functions of the university that this generation needs for our world.

2. What should be the long-term shape of the university sector in New Zealand so that it meets these primary roles?

Research over the last decade has demonstrated the challenges universities are experiencing as the result of a complex and interconnected set of external forces acting on the sector and its leaders (Marshall, 2018; Sutherland and Marshall, 2023). The current model of the university system in New Zealand is increasingly recognised as embodying a failed ideology of marketisation, neo-liberal policy, and the discredited theories of human capital (Marginson, 1989). Change should embody a new philosophy not merely a new structure. The New Zealand Productivity Commission, in a recent report on the future of work (New Zealand Productivity Commission, 2020), noted the country's weaknesses included:

  • Declining school system performance in reading, mathematics and science, with particular issues for Māori and Pasifika students and those from disadvantaged communities generally;
  • A lack of business dynamism, poor capital flows and limited investment, characterized as "weak innovation";
  • A weakness in business leadership and management capability to drive changes that might benefit from Future Skills; and
  • Minimal engagement with emerging technologies, in part reflecting the lack of capital investment, but also a consequence of a general attitude to business that is driven by cost minimization and low-cost labour.

Positioning the university system as a social infrastructure sustaining the intellectual capital of the nation is a stronger way of imagining a future shape of the system. It avoids bureaucratic and self-interested capture by those who see it simply as an efficient mechanism for generating a cheap semi-skilled labour force, ripe for exploitation by multinational employers lacking any commitment to the well-being of New Zealand society.

Implicit in this model is the recognition that the university system for New Zealand must be viable and confident without needing to operate as an export-driven provider of commodity qualifications and immigration opportunities to foreigners. It is a call for a university system that recognises its primary role is one of collective public good (Marginson, 2016; Sandel 2020). It must embody the need to ensure all members of our society are able to directly and indirectly benefit from the system, regardless of where they start from, how hard they find it to progress, and the pathway that they choose to follow.

3. What are the barriers (excluding fiscal) that limit the universities from operating efficiently and effectively for the benefit of New Zealand?

I would like to quote at length from a recent chapter I wrote on the impact of crisis thinking on leadership and change, as I think it captures a significant barrier limiting the universities which pervades our current system and that this current review risks perpetuating.

"I think as more people realize the reality of the ‘permacrisis' state that I think will define the context for universities and our societies for the foreseeable future (Sherwood, 2022), they will find themselves struggling to see meaning and remain focused on their work unless leaders work constantly to frame a coherent narrative of shared values and purposes that can create a personal capacity to embody Taleb's antifragility (Taleb, 2012).

"A commonly claimed benefit of crisis is that leadership agency is enabled and the organizational impediments created by ambiguous authority and responsibility are minimized as legitimation of the crisis dominates. This was apparent during the pandemic as decision-making accelerated (Ashford, 2021); however it has been identified as a risk to education as crisis leadership, "disaster capitalism" in the words of Klein (2007, p.6), can be a mechanism for neo-liberal agendas damaging the academic values and public purposes of the university (Ramírez and Hyslop-Margison, 2015; Watermeyer et al., 2021).

"Personally, I think that needing a crisis to enact change speaks to a failure of leadership capability, imagination and confidence. There is a significant difference between responses to Black Swan crises where leadership needs to provide structure, priorities, and build confidence in the resilience of the institution, and to other more routine White Swan crises such as a financial deficit, where arguably leadership and management have failed in the period leading up to the point of a crisis. Scott describes legitimacy as being constructed differently for each of the three pillars. Legalistic conformance to rules for the regulatory pillar, moral perspectives for the normative, and shared frames of reference for the cultural-cognitive (Scott, 2014, p. 74). Leaders that deliberately create crisis by manipulating systems, the context, or the perception of breaches of shared values are damaging the legitimacy of their use of power and breaking trust with the university and the communities it serves.

"Sadly, there are many examples in the literature of what Marginson and Considine (2000, p. 129) call ‘engineered consent', where the processes of change are enacted through manipulation. This can be through the use of the externally imposed crisis conditions to act outside the established cultural-cognitive framework such as the example given by Cain and Hewitt (2004) where a politician colluded with a university leader: ‘by externalising the threat – by making me [Dawkins] the bogey man – [Melbourne VC Penington] was able to pick up the bits of it that he liked, and push that through, but blame me for it. And so he'd make these speeches where he'd be pretty unflattering about me, whereas in fact he was a secret supporter of what we were doing' (Cain and Hewitt, 2004, pp. 48–49 quoting Labour Government Education Minister (1987–92) John Dawkins). Similar expedient manipulations of the normal activities in organizations across the three pillars using the excuse of crisis are apparent in benefits identified by some as having arisen from the COVID-19 pandemic (Ashford, 2021).

"The challenge for leaders is to respond to the immediacy of the crisis in ways that maximise where possible the cultural-cognitive and normative pillars of institutional leadership, while resisting the allure of over-using the expedient regulative pillar's coercive tools. This latter approach risks creating long-term damage to the other pillars that will compromise leadership effectiveness as the crisis of the moment passes. When the perpetual nature of the perma-crisis is understood, the damage a constantly coercive culture of authoritarian regulatory responses would have on the creative and collegial culture that defines a university should be apparent regardless of one's feelings about the value or legitimacy of the neo-liberal New Public Management systems that this would likely embody." (Marshall, 2024 forthcoming, n.p.)

The sector has been tacitly framed by crisis, by this review, and by political and sector leaders. This framing existed well before the pandemic and reflects a failure of vision and ambition for New Zealanders and the sector. The barrier this creates is the implicit operation of crisis responses, normalised into the operation of the sector and compromising the conception of what a university system can be for a country. One example of this embedded crisis thinking relates to the intersection of immigration, skill needs, and the framing of the role the university plays in response to these. This is apparent in the limited conception of our future needs evident in current policies.

"New Zealand faces a number of challenges in its engagement with Future Skills needs (Marshall, 2024, p. 599):
  • An ill-defined conception of Future Skills that prevents any focused development in advance of need;
  • Low investment by key private sector stakeholders directly in Future Skills identification and development;
  • Low returns on investment in qualifications for individuals discouraging participation and creating a drain on capability through outward migration;
  • Low capital investment in technologies to realize the productivity benefits of current and Future Skills; and
  • Overdependence on an underperforming and underfunded public education system.
  • Overlaying all of these is a fixation on a model of education defined by formal qualifications and their regulation by government agencies rather than on development of human capabilities and knowledge for the future."

Crisis thinking creates a barrier driven by dominance of short-term employment outcomes for an economy with sustained and systemic issues with rewarding skilled people. We are a low wage economy dominated by the production of relatively unrefined commodities and low skilled industries such as tourism. We allow growth to be channelled to other countries and to companies who are uninterested in investing in New Zealand, choosing instead to invest research and development resources in their home countries. The consequence for those with a New Zealand degree is a financial cost with a payback period of sixteen years. This is nearly double that which exists in Australia. This is an insidious disincentive to gaining further qualifications and drives educated people to leave, further de-skilling our society.

4. Can the eight universities function better as a holistic system to meet New Zealand's needs? If so, how to establish a more differentiated yet cooperative sector?
6. What is the appropriate mix of offerings in teaching, research, and knowledge transfer across the system to meet economic, environmental, and social challenges?
7. What are the most appropriate approaches to ensure excellence in teaching, research, knowledge transfer and community engagement?
8. How to ensure universities play their role in advancing all segments of New Zealand society without compromising on the goals of excellence?

The mistake in the framing of these four questions, is looking inwards at the universities rather than placing this question in the wider context. How, as a country, do we manage the boundaries and intersections between a vibrant university sector and the wider community, including employers, industries and others? The universities can and should improve, but doing so will not provide the outcomes desired unless the responses are undertaken in partnership and with the direct involvement of the entire community. There must be direct investment and commitment from employers to enable learning, research and knowledge transfer to be actively undertaken in New Zealand.

9. What is the appropriate size for the domestic student body in the New Zealand universities?

Comparison of the New Zealand university system with that of other countries suggests we are not educating as many people in the 18 to 35 age group to degree level as others. The system should be attracting another 50,000 students annually to be comparable in scale of impact to those of Australia, Ireland or the UK (see table). This reflects a combination of the structural problems facing our economy and our lack of value in highly skilled people (as noted above). It also indicates the relative dominance of non-university provision in New Zealand. This is important and has many benefits, but it limits people by providing qualifications with limited utility outside of New Zealand. It acts to maintain low wage levels and limits pathways for ongoing development as societal needs change (also as above).

CountryNumber of UniversitiesPopulation 18-35 /
number of universities
Number of domestic studentsDomestic students /
number of universities
New Zealand8175,536156,82519,603
United Kingdom28552,7982,182,5607,658

Note: data are for 2021, most recent year with comparable data available, data by author from multiple sources

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

Klein, N. (2007). The shock doctrine: the rise of disaster capitalism. Metropolitan Books.

Marginson, S. (1989). Human capital theory and education policy. Sydney: Public Sector Research Centre, University of New South Wales.

Marginson, S. (2016). Higher education and the common good. Melbourne University Publishing.

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

Marshall, S. (2024). Future higher education in New Zealand: Creating a universal learning community for future skills. In U. Ehler and L. Eigbrecht (Eds.) Creating the University of the Future. Zukunft der Hochschulbildung - Future Higher Education. Springer VS, Wiesbaden.

Marshall, S. (2024 forthcoming). Resilience and learning in the face of Black and Gray Swans: Academic development and capability building through crisis in New Zealand. In N. Rao (Ed.) Teaching and Learning in HE in Times of Crisis. Bloomsbury

New Zealand Productivity Commission. (2020). Technological change and the future of work: Final report. Wellington.

Sandel, M.J. (2020). The tyranny of merit: What's become of the common good? Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York.

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.

Waks, L. J. (2007). The concept of fundamental educational change. Educational Theory, 57(3), 277–295.