New Zealand’s universities face an identity crisis

Dr Michael Johnston
Dr James Kierstead
NZ Herald
8 June, 2023

New Zealand’s universities are in crisis.

Their most immediate problem is financial. Victoria University of Wellington recently announced that it is looking to cut some 160 administrative and 100 academic staff (nearly 10% of total staff). The University of Otago plans to shed “several hundred” academic and administrative positions. Massey University is planning for a net reduction of 36 roles. All this follows AUT’s announcement, in September last year, of 170 academic redundancies.

Legal action by the Tertiary Education Union has staved off AUT’s redundancies for now.  But the financial problems they were meant to alleviate remain. As AUT Vice-Chancellor Damon Salesa has recently said, “hard decisions will have to be made" at many of New Zealand’s universities this year.

How has it come to this?

Some of the financial strife has arisen from factors beyond universities’ control. Under the current government, public funding for universities has consistently failed to keep pace with inflation. Soaring rents for student accommodation in the major cities and a labour shortage have contributed to suppressing domestic enrolments.

Plummeting international student numbers were an inevitable consequence of the border closures that formed a key plank of the government’s response to COVID-19. The New Zealand Initiative recommended taking advantage of New Zealand’s relative safety to reopen to international students much earlier, subject to quarantine. Instead, the government was slow to re-open this important market.

University leaders have made some questionable spending decisions of their own. Victoria is currently constructing a ‘Living Pā,’ at a cost of some $45 million. Otago has spent some $150 million on a new facility on its Christchurch campus.  

Ultimately, though, the real crisis facing our universities is not financial. It is a crisis of identity. What is the university for? What sets it apart as an institution?

If university leaders could clearly articulate answers to these questions, students who want what universities alone can offer, might be more willing to enrol. And critically, a leadership that is clear on its mission is likely to make wiser spending decisions.

Universities do have a role in training New Zealanders for industry and employment. But, as crucial and valuable as that role is, it does not differentiate them from other tertiary providers. Historically, it is a dual focus on teaching and research in a culture of open enquiry that has set the university apart. Universities conduct fundamental research in the sciences and the humanities and engage in open- and fair-minded teaching, nurturing the minds of students of all backgrounds and perspectives.

General degree programmes like Bachelors of Arts and Science provide higher education in disciplines that contribute to knowledge production. They educate people to think independently and creatively. They train new generations who will build on the knowledge of the past and, in turn, pass it on.

Historically, that kind of education has been the fundamental purpose of university degrees. The critical faculties cultivated by studying the sciences and humanities are essential to sorting out truth from error. They enrich the quality of ideas in public discourse. That, in turn, leads to a higher-quality political discourse.

Providing this kind of education and the research that underpins it are key contributions to the public sphere. Academics should serve as respected contributors to debates in fields ranging from international relations to the arts.

These purposes are impossible to achieve without an atmosphere conducive to open inquiry and freedom of speech. But, over the past decade, commercial pressures and a wave of censorious identity politics have combined forces to erode the central mission of the university. ‘Cancel culture’ has resulted in speakers being banned from campuses. It has stifled the free discourse that is the life blood of the academy.

A recent survey run by the Free Speech Union (FSU) shows that many academics no longer feel comfortable contesting ideas freely. They feel especially constrained on topics like sex and gender, race, and colonialism. Yet these are exactly the kinds of crucial, hot-button conversations that academics and students should be contributing to.

The results of any one survey of this kind must be treated with caution. Those most likely to respond to such surveys are those with the strongest views, one way or the other. But this survey does not stand alone. It corroborates a similar one the FSU ran last year, and reiterates a point that has emerged in similar surveys across the English-speaking world. It also echoes a survey of New Zealand undergraduates by Heterodox New Zealand, a group of academics committed to the preservation of academic freedom.

The fog of censorship and opprobrium that hangs over today’s campuses affects right-of-center individuals more than their left-of-centre peers. As a result, today’s universities risk producing biased research and presenting an unwelcoming educational environment to anyone with more conservative views. As AUT professor Grant Schofield wrote in a recent piece about New Zealand’s universities, ‘We have annoyed a solid section of society….Everyone from the centre to right politically.’

If universities are to maintain their relevance, they must rediscover the spirit of academic freedom. If they are to continue to justify funding as public institutions, they will also have to make a real effort to recover their balance.

ACT has proposed legislation to impose funding penalties on universities that fail to uphold academic freedom. But it would be far better if universities put their own houses in order. A starting point might be to appoint academic freedom guardians. Their jobs would be to audit their universities for diversity of thought and act as an ombuds service for staff and students who are censured for speaking their minds.

The decisions facing university leaders in the weeks and months ahead will be hard. We are as dismayed as anyone at the impending cuts and would love to see our universities flourishing and fulfilling their true purpose.

If there is any silver lining to the current crisis, it’s that times like these can help to clarify purposes and priorities. New Zealand universities need to shift from their current trajectory. If they do not, increasing irrelevance is the only plausible result.

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