Academic freedom and democracy is under threat, university staff and students say.
The Education Amendment Bill, currently before a select committee, will reduce the size of university and wananga councils to no more than 12 members, three or four of whom must be ministerial appointments.
The proposal is to remove the requirement for staff and student representation on university councils.
At present, councils have up to 20 members, four of whom are ministerial appointments and at least three of whom are elected by staff and students.
Victoria University Pacific Studies lecturer Teresia Teaiwa said it was crucial student, staff and community voices were heard on councils.
"It's an issue of representation and good governance," she said.
"By making the council smaller, by giving so much power to the minister for appointments, you run the risk of being out of touch with the people you're supposed to be serving."
Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce said the changes were designed to give universities the flexibility to determine their own councils.
"These are not massive changes," he said. "NZUSA [New Zealand Union of Students' Associations] is talking them up."
Tertiary Education Union president Lesley Francey said her members were outraged by the amendments.
"He [Joyce] is wresting control of universities and wananga into the hands of his own ministerial appointees and business supporters."
It was important that staff and student representatives were democratically elected.
"We believe university councils should be independent of government and of business," she said.
Successful overseas universities often had large governing bodies and there was no evidence smaller councils were more efficient, Francey said.
"There's no evidence whatsoever, no justification. It's almost a whim, you could say."
New Zealand Union of Students' Associations president Daniel Haines said the changes were unnecessary.
"The proposal will make New Zealand university governing bodies among the smallest in the world, and would be dangerously dominated by government appointees," he said.
Claims institutes of technology and polytechnics have performed better financially since the 2010 changes to their governance had not been proven, Haines said.
Victoria University Student Association president Sonya Clark said the amendment would significantly reduce the councils' independence from government.
Joyce, however, said any good organisation would consult its stakeholders.
"They all have to consult with representatives of the various groups, but that doesn't mean every group has to be on the council," he said.
Joyce said he would be surprised if universities did not voluntarily include student representation.
"It seems strange to me that we wouldn't trust an organisation that has over $1 billion worth of assets, like Auckland University, or $0.75 billion in the case of Victoria, to be able to come up with a constitution that's appropriate for the council."
At just under half all university income, the proportion of government funding given to universities was still higher than the proposed proportion of ministerial appointees to councils, he said.
The changes are to take effect in 2016.
- The Wellingtonian