Reform eyes cuts to university councils

01:13, May 05 2012

University councils may shrink and councilors could be replaced in a Government-led review.

Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce said work had already started on a review of the country's eight university councils.

''They're potentially a bit large and unwieldy,'' Joyce said.

''I want to see the universities take a more entrepreneurial approach.
We need them to step up and take advantage of some of these opportunities.''

Joyce this week announced the May 24 Budget would include an increase in the compulsory student loan repayment rate and a tightening of the eligibility to student allowances. But he has now revealed further reforms are planned for universities, including a review of the councils and a separate review of a the controversial Performance Based Research Fund (PBRF).

Joyce suggested changes to the personnel on university councils may be needed.

''I think we've got some great people in our institutions,'' he said.

''But my question is, have they seized enough of both the opportunity and the threat of what they need to be doing to take advantage of the situation over the next few years.''

Governance of the country's polytechnics had already been reformed, which had turned around academic and financial performance in that sector, he said.

But Labour's deputy leader Grant Robertson said the changes at polytechs had seen students and community members dropped from governance. A similar approach to universities reflected an "accountant's eye - seeing the cost of everything and the value of nothing".

"Universities are not simply sausage factories pumping out products.
They are an important part of our democratic society, supporting accountability and transparency," he said.

"Mr Joyce has a solution in search of a problem when it comes to reducing the size of University Councils.  He should let them get on with their job and stop meddling in matters that will not make a significant difference to the quality of education and research being produced."

Joyce, meanwhile, said funding for engineering and the physical sciences would get a boost in the Budget.

Research would also get a boost, though a modest increase in funding to the controversial Performance Based Research Fund (PBRF).

The PBRF, set up under the previous Labour administration, has been the subject of allegations of rorting by universities hiding away their least productive researchers to maximise their share of the funding. There has also been growing concern about the amount of time wasted by academics tinkering with their PBRF portfolios.

While the PBRF had been ''broadly successful,'' Joyce said there were problems which would be addressed in a review this year.

"Frustrating gamesmanship'' needed to be addressed and the Government was also keen to look at introducing incentives for the commercial success of research.

''You make it [PBRF] all about [publishing] papers, so if somebody steps out of the system for a year to go and work on a commercial project somewhere, does that damage their PBRF score so that they can't contribute to what the university is being asked to contribute to?'' Joyce said.

There may be a way to introduce incentives to the PBRF process for commercialising research, he said.

''You've got to be careful because obviously, it's fine in engineering and economics and science and things but it's a little bit harder in humanities.''

Universities would also be expected to start earning more revenue from foreign fee-paying students, which New Zealand lagged behind international competitors on.

Robertson welcomed the review of the PBRF.

"It's good that he has heeded the call of Labour, the Tertiary Education Union and others that the scheme needs a thorough re-look to ensure its goals are being met," Robertson said.

Universities could be more collaborative and focused on developing their particular strengths, he said.