University reforms an 'attack on democracy'

LUCY TOWNEND
Last updated 12:00 13/02/2014

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The cutting of members and moving of powers proposed in the shakeup of university councils has education observers fearing for students' voices and academic freedom.

But the Government says it's a move aimed at strengthening councils' structures to make them more responsive to students' needs.

A reform of university and wananga governance councils has been given the tick of approval by the Government this week, with councils set to become smaller, more-skills based and better able to respond to "modern-day tertiary education challenges".

The changes will be included as part of an Education Amendment Bill, soon to be introduced to Parliament, and if passed will come into force by 2016.

Currently councils have between 12 and 20 members, with Massey University's consisting of 18, but the reform will reduce those numbers to between eight and 12 members.

Other changes include the Tertiary Education Minister having the ability to appoint people with governance capabilities to the councils.

A third of the members of each council will be handpicked by government bosses and the rest of councils' makeup will be decided by each institution's constitution, with a rule of thumb that all councils will be required to have at least one Maori member at the table.

New Zealand Union of Students' Associations president Daniel Haines said the changes would make councils unrepresentative of the communities they served, calling the decision to have no students as of right on councils "ridiculous".

"The proposed changes are ill-considered, unnecessary, and inconsistent with international norms and best practice."

They risk undermining the integrity and the robust decision-making processes that are currently in place."

Student associations would be rallying together at the return of semester in the next few weeks to scrutinise suggestions, he said.

"We'll be co-ordinating opportunities for students to make their voices heard in defending their right to determine their own educational futures."

Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment Minister Steven Joyce said the reforms wouldn't compromise institutional autonomy or academic freedom.

Massey University Council distance student member Ralph Springett said the reform was not unexpected.

"It does follow the overall direction the minister is pushing tertiary education, but I'm not convinced it creates efficiency."

There are three student representatives on the council committee currently - an internal, distance and Maori student rep - and Mr Springett is optimistic some student presence will remain.

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Tertiary Education Union president Lesley Francey said the changes took the control of education institutes out of their own hands. "There is no justification for these proposals, other than silencing local community voices that do not support the minister's own economic vision," Ms Francey said.

"We regard any move to replace locally-elected and chosen community, staff and student representatives with a council made of ministerial appointees and business leaders as an attack on democracy and on academic freedom."

Massey University vice-chancellor Steve Maharey said the motivators for the reform were vague but Massey would be looking to create a "hybrid-style" university council with a range of representatives and views.

"No-one has been clear on what the problem is the Government has been trying to solve - it's always been cast as a problem of nimble, agile decision-making, but I don't think any university has had a problem with this."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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