Treasury says quake research 'low priority'

Uni told to focus on science, engineering

Last updated 05:00 01/07/2013
Canterbury University
Iain McGregor
UNDER PRESSURE: Student numbers have fallen at Canterbury University after the quakes.

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With Canterbury University recording low student numbers and this week's announcement about reshuffling within the arts college, a narrowing of its focus to science and engineering seems more likely. JODY O'CALLAGHAN looks at what the future holds for one of the region's biggest institutions.

The Government is playing a heavy hand in the future academic direction of the University of Canterbury and withholding funding until it alters its business plan accordingly.

Documents seen by The Press show that senior analysts at the Treasury are recommending Crown investment be focused on boosting the science and engineering facilities, and not provided for the university's specialised Quake Centre. It was "low priority for the Crown", as was relocation of the teacher education centre to the main campus.

The Treasury says as a Crown-owned entity, the university has "considerable autonomy" in setting its academic direction. "But it is also part of the national tertiary network and its academic direction therefore needs to be considered in that context."

Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce denied Treasury had been any more involved than normal, saying "obviously we're all in agreement" over the importance of science and engineering.

The Government's "meddling" in what the university teaches has raised concerns among the Labour party and the sector's union.

Labour education spokeswoman Megan Woods said the Treasury's involvement was "totally inappropriate".

"Cantabrians deserve that decisions about the future of their university are made for sound educational reasons."

The university could be a world-leading university in science and engineering since it was "uniquely placed in a seismically active city that is undertaking a massive rebuild".

"However, it is shallow and flawed thinking that, to achieve international excellence in engineering, you would narrow your focus as a university."

Tertiary Education Union spokeswoman Gabrielle Moore thought the Treasury was using the quake situation at the university as "the very perfect excuse they need to have a bigger than normal involvement".

The Government should not choose the academic direction of a university, and its opposition to funding the Quake Centre showed its agenda, she said.

The university had done everything it could to get itself in good financial order, she said.

"It's the Government that's not stepping up at the moment. To quote John Key, show us the money. Show Canterbury the money, Joyce, because that's all that we're waiting for."

The Press understands the university asked the Government for between $200 million and $250m in support - about 5 per cent of its 10-year operating and capital works budget - but just how much the Government would fund would not be known until October.

Joyce had already confirmed support of science and engineering facilities, however, the university's need was much wider than those two areas.

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But what direction Canterbury University has in mind is unclear, as the Treasury is claiming it only ever asked for funding for science and engineering.

A Treasury spokesman said its role was to ensure a university was sustainable for the long term and that its strategic direction was aligned with the Government's wider economic, innovation and educational goals, he said.

"Treasury support depends on the University of Canterbury submitting a satisfactory business case for the science and engineering projects for which they are seeking Crown funding.

"They have not approached the Government for funding for other areas."

Vice-chancellor Rod Carr is refusing to discuss it until he gets the green light for the money, but it appears there is still some disagreement.

This week's Canterbury University council agenda mentioned the minister was "generally comfortable" with its case for support around science and engineering, but was seeking additional information before determining what he would recommend to the Cabinet.

The university was proceeding with architectural plans for the colleges despite delays in the funding decision, it said.

And, "while Government support will be critical for our transformation, recruiting more students will be critical for our recovery," it said.

This is despite a July 2012 Treasury document saying Canterbury University's business case was not transformational enough, and "appears wedded to their current business model i.e. increase the number of students to pre-quake levels as quickly as possible".

"We would like to see more strategic thinking around how UC could develop and leverage more off its unique specialisation: science, engineering and technology."

Joyce said the Government had no secret agenda, and it was "entirely appropriate" for it to have a say over significant investments.

"Science and engineering is strategically important to the university and to the Government in terms of investments we're seeking to make."

He denied the Treasury was playing a heavy hand, saying they "generally do when talking about significant millions of dollars".

There was a shift in student numbers that showed a decline in the arts and an increase in science and engineering, he said.

The Treasury's wishes are in line with a document released by the Ministry of Education and Tertiary Education Commission last year called Directions for Education Renewal in Greater Christchurch.

It says "priority will be given to investment in facilities that will make a positive difference to New Zealand's and Canterbury's economy".

Institutions would be supported to "build on areas of strength that are economically important such as engineering and agriculture".

While "providers are self-managing and guaranteed autonomy in the legislation, the Government can facilitate dialogue, encourage and participate in network planning, and help broker relationships between providers and agencies".

The Government may also suggest that "institutions make changes in their portfolios", and "if necessary, step in to resolve impasses".

To which Carr said at the time, "there is no evidence of any Government intention to force institutional rearrangements".

JOB LOSSES POSSIBLE

A reshuffle of the Canterbury University college of arts could spell job losses but create a stable platform for future recovery and growth, staff and students have been told.

Acting Pro-Vice-Chancellor Arts Jonathan Le Cocq last week announced to a room of about 80 academic staff the start of a consultation period on the department's future direction.

A union representative said the mood remained "reasonably positive" despite the reshuffle meaning possible job cuts down the line.

Le Cocq said the college reshuffle was motivated by financial constraints, desire to build on international rankings that place its arts college in the top 100, and inspiring confidence among students.

"While having an impact on staff numbers, it would create a stable platform for future recovery and growth.

"Current and future students would be able to have confidence about the programmes being offered and their continuing studies at UC."

The major subjects affected in the draft plan are European languages, which may not be offered as separate majors, and Theatre and Film Studies, which would be offered through separate programmes in Film and Theatre.

Many other departments would be refocused, or created anew.

The document is open for consultation with staff until July 12, and once analysed, the college would consider referring its proposals to faculties and the academic board. It would not be open to review before 2017, he said.

The Tertiary Education Union supports the announcement.

Union organiser Gabrielle Moore said there was a reasonably positive mood during the announcement, even among "doom and gloom merchants".

She understood there was to be no proposals to close any programmes. Job losses could come later, but the impact might be quite minimal, she said.

Programmes could take on a different configuration, but she hoped that after 10 years of constant change the university "might finally be getting it right".

But it was now up to Government to support that.

STORY SO FAR

October 2011: University of Canterbury vice-chancellor Rod Carr asked staff to consider voluntary redundancy as the university struggled to balance the books, after losing students because of the earthquakes. UC submitted its case for financial support to Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce.

November 2012: The Cabinet agreed in principle to provide a capital contribution to UC for rebuilding or replacing its science and engineering facilities.

February 2013: The university made a public call for Government support when it announced a $67m deficit for the 2012 financial year.

March 2013: Former pro-vice-chancellor of arts Ed Adelson fired a parting shot at the Government when it became clear staff cuts were likely at the college through attempts to save $1m this year.

May 2013: The university increased its marketing budget to become one of the highest-spending institutions in the country as it pushed hard to attract students.

August 2013: Detailed business case due to be submitted to the Tertiary Education Commission. October 2013: Expected Cabinet decision on level of financial support.

- The Press

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