Will sweeping changes improve university?

SHIFT IN FUNDING: Can universities embrace commercial ideals?
SHIFT IN FUNDING: Can universities embrace commercial ideals?

Will sweeping changes at the University of Canterbury improve the academic institution? And can universities embrace commercial ideals? PHILIP MATTHEWS reports.

Halloween was a happy event at the University of Canterbury. On the morning of October 31 Prime Minister John Key and Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce flew south to announce that they had, or perhaps even were, the solution to the cash-strapped university's post-earthquake problems. They brought $260 million with them.

So far so good. But the event had its own heavy symbolism and an untold story behind it. The recovery money would go towards science and engineering precincts while in the background, Joyce continued to push the entire university sector further towards those subjects in particular and a business model in general.

Joyce told the small crowd that the Government's funding, won after two years of back and forth with university management, was "closely aligned with the innovation plan the Government wants to support". To be precise, the university's work "in the engineering space and the science space".

That the Government, represented by an accounting graduate from the University of Canterbury and a zoology graduate from Massey University, favoured science and engineering over the arts was not news. Many expected the bail-out money would come with strings attached and it was no secret that Canterbury vice-chancellor Rod Carr was also happy with that direction. There is an emphasis worldwide on so- called Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) as a way of kickstarting knowledge economies.

While Key and Joyce made speeches in Christchurch, Joyce's ministry had two important documents out for public consultation. Both have titles that would make eyes glaze over but they will steer university culture in New Zealand for years to come.

There is the Review of the Legislative Settings for University Governance. And there is the Draft Tertiary Education Strategy (2014-2019).

The first proposes to make university councils smaller and to drop the requirement to have staff and students represented. This is more than just tinkering with governance. The direction any individual university takes will come more directly under the control of the minister and whoever he or she appoints.

They will tend to be people with generic management experience. The idea is to have nimble and agile boards that imitate corporate structures.

Labour's Tertiary Education spokesman Grant Robertson attacks it as "anti-democratic". Others call it a solution to a non- existent problem.

Canterbury University genetics lecturer Jack Heinemann thinks that the proposal fails in a couple of important ways. As well as not identifying any problem that needs solving, Joyce is undermining the university's legal requirement to be critic and conscience of society.

Besides working in the biological sciences, Heinemann is co-chair of the newly established group Academic Freedom Aotearoa. Evidence tells him that less diversity on councils "will make universities more prone to the forces that suppress them as critic and conscience."

The traditions of academic freedom say that "a university should stand independent of concentrated, powerful interests like the government, political interests and commercial interests". This proposal puts those powerful interests at the table.

Some suspect it was tactical of Joyce to release two important documents at the same time. The response to each is diluted and one distracts from the other.

So what does the second document, the five-year strategy, say? What does the Government want our universities and polytechnics to do?

For Jack Heinemann, the 2014-2019 tertiary education strategy is "ho hum, business as usual". Other academics who are less willing to put their names to criticism see it as "narrow" in its focus on skills, employability and commercial imperatives.

The strategy wants "a stronger focus on the outcomes of tertiary education". The Government expects education to support "commercial innovation by connecting the research, expertise of the sector and skilled graduates with businesses and communities".

It notes that research funding from the business community is a growing area, increasing by 10 per cent between 2008 and 2011. Science and innovation funding will "focus more on business-led research and areas of priority".

There is another commercial imperative in the selling of international education. In 2011, fee revenue alone from international students at New Zealand universities and polytechnics was at $380m, up from $313m in 2008.

In the 2013 Budget, the Crown entity Education New Zealand had a funding increase of $40m over four years. It promotes New Zealand as an education destination in the competitive international market. The hope is that international education will be worth $5 billion by 2025, roughly double its current value.

Science and engineering are named but other subjects don't get a look in. Ideas that universities should be critic and conscience, generating knowledge as a public good, are absent. The arts are missing in action.

The reason this all sounds ho hum to Heinemann is because market-driven thinking is now universal. The expat South African writer JM Coetzee wrote a piece this month about South African universities that could almost apply, word for word with names changed, to universities in New Zealand.

"South African universities are by no means in a unique position," Coetzee wrote. "All over the world, as governments retreat from their traditional duty to foster the common good and reconceive of themselves as mere managers of national economies, universities have been coming under pressure to turn themselves into training schools equipping young people with the skills required by a modern economy."

Coetzee argued that "allowing the transient needs of the economy to define the goals of higher education is a misguided and shortsighted policy". A democratic society, and even "a vigorous national economy", needs critically literate citizens who are "competent to explore and interrogate the assumptions behind the paradigms of national and economic life reigning at any given moment".

Without the training in critical reflection that the arts and humanities offer, "we run a perennial risk of relaxing into complacent stasis".

Coetzee's text has circulated as an unofficial manifesto among disenchanted academics at Canterbury and other universities. They would compare and contrast it with Joyce's strategy.

Tertiary Education Union spokeswoman Sharn Riggs noticed the strategy's business emphasis. She counted the number of times Joyce used the word "society" in his speech at the launch. Just once.

New Zealand Union of Students' Associations president Pete Hodkinson wondered if Joyce had his tertiary education portfolio confused with his business, innovation and employment portfolio.

"It's as much a Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment strategy as a Ministry of Education strategy," Hodkinson said in a media release. "At what point does the Ministry of Education lose its fundamental stewardship of tertiary education?"

As Heinemann says, this has been a 30-year process of universities adopting a more market-driven model. British academic Roger Brown has written that the model damages the quality of education by "commodifying knowledge" and lowers standards through "grade inflation and the acceptance of plagiarism and other forms of cheating". Resources are diverted from learning and teaching to "activities like marketing, enrolment, student aid and administration".

Heinemann's Academic Freedom Aotearoa group could have formed at any time over the past three decades but the subject is "certainly on the mind of many in the sector" at the moment, he says.

"There are always people who want disagreement to go away for their own purposes."

It is not as simple as saying - hypothetically - that if you have dairy industry research money, you must stop talking about dirty rivers.

"You are less likely to be asking questions of global public good significance and more specifically asking questions that will yield a licensable technology to solve somebody's problem," Heinemann says.

"There is pressure within institutions to behave in a way that is compatible with the goals of business. They want to be seen to be business-friendly. That changes internal structures. That makes the university more skittish about performing its activities as critic and conscience particularly when controversial or unpopular viewpoints might threaten their local connections."

In general, Heinemann sees the market model as "an unimaginative, highly conformist strategy that is still impoverished for analysis of whether it will be successful in the long term".

The sector becomes accustomed over time to conforming to government and commercial signals "and getting in line with ever decreasing funding to behave in the right way".

University managers get used to working out which way the wind is blowing.

Take the university councils issue. Canterbury was ahead of the Government on this when it volunteered to cut its council from 20 members to 12. It kept some staff and student representation but also allowed for people to come in with special skills for these "challenging" times.

"Canterbury got used as the pre-emptive example," Heinemann says. "We asked to have our council numbers changed. It was clearly what the Government wanted. Then it became a good idea that the Government should consider for all universities. In our need to be responsible and successful in the long term, we have been forced to take short- term compromises that might, in the end, be devastating."

But Heinemann feels Canterbury has been over a barrel since the earthquakes.

"It is in a particularly vulnerable position financially because of a disaster it didn't create," he says. "As such, it's possible that it believes it must toe the line in a way that it normally wouldn't feel [it should]. It may be being manipulated to get the other universities in line. That's my perception."

Privately and sometimes publicly, academics will be critical of vice-chancellor Rod Carr, but Heinemann points out that no vice-chancellor acts in a vacuum. Their choices depend on the system they work within even though "they are part of a system that may be going in the wrong direction."

One solution suggests itself. He would like to see more unity among vice-chancellors to confront the role of the universities as "handmaidens to highly concentrated private interests".

In the market model, you get constant review and restructure. Or as Jack Heinemann puts it, ''we are in this neoliberal model where governments and chief executives are never satisfied with things as they are''.  

The College of Arts at the University of Canterbury knows how that feels. Review has followed review since 2006. Each time there have been suggested ways to cut costs, staff numbers and even entire departments. 

University management tried and failed to axe the small but vocal Theatre and Film Studies department in 2008 and 2012. This year it managed to merge it out of existence. The theatre side will be absorbed into English and the film half becomes part of a new emphasis on cinema at the university. 

While the department disappears, only one job will go. Overall, equivalent fulltime staff numbers in the college are set to go from 114.3 to 100.5. The college hopes for voluntary redundancies and early retirements. The ''change and renewal proposal'' released in August - now a done deal rather than just a proposal - sets out the need for the college to reach a ''sustainable financial position''. 

Enrolments fell across the university after the earthquakes, but the arts was hit hardest. In 2010, it was the largest college with around 3500 equivalent fulltime students. In 2013, it is the fourth largest with around 2310 equivalent fulltime students. 

Staff numbers have fallen from 152.6 in 2006 to 114.3 this year. And the drop has been inconsistent. Some areas, such as English, philosophy and history, are now under-staffed, the document says. Others are considered over-staffed. Languages will lose four staff and a major in European languages will disappear. But there are additions, too.

From next year, the college offers a course in digital humanities. The new emphasis on cinema follows a recommendation by US film academic Daniel Bernardi who predicts that Canterbury could be one of the top five film campuses in the region simply by building on existing strengths. It could become that valuable thing: a destination for international students. 

But Bernardi's report, leaked to the Press, was not entirely positive. He saw that ''a lack of a clear vision for the arts on the part of the university has led to a climate of distrust among staff''. The college is ''burdened by a labyrinth of small departments''. In the area of film, there have been ''internal and public turf battles''. 

At Canterbury, film is ''a fine art, a performance art, a literary work, an ethnographic practice and a cultural artefact''. Everything but ''a cinematic art'', he said.

The new structure tidies that up. Pro vice-chancellor of the College of Arts, Jonathan Le Cocq, is quietly enthusiastic about the opportunities. Film could connect with the strong communications department as well as music, which is his own area.
Le Cocq came into the top arts job earlier this year after the sudden departure of Ed Adelson. Adelson seemed less liked and more remote whereas there is a sense that Le Cocq has at least been listening. 

Privately, arts academics will talk about how change is coming from within now. It feels less imposed. Heinemann talks of ''a new contract of trust'' between the college and central management. 

It also helps that there was a guarantee that this was to be the last review for at least four years. 

''We are at numbers that guarantee a period of stability,'' Le Cocq says. ''That was written into the proposal.'' And the bigger picture? How does arts fit the narrow focus on jobs in Steven Joyce's tertiary education strategy?
As far as Le Cocq is concerned, arts will always be central to higher education.

 No university would disagree with that. But there is an increasing need to justify the arts in market-based terms, to explain their relevance. 

''There has been some shift in funding,'' he says. 

''The government has tended to increase funding on Stem subjects whereas it's frozen it, which means de facto cut it, over a period of funding rounds for the arts. You can't help but notice that difference, that shift in emphasis.

''We are having to be more explicit about some of the things that we do. Students have to be made more aware of what they have been given.''

There is a focus on transferable skills. A history degree is not just a history degree. It is training in critical thinking, independent research and expression. Which may be just as valuable as science and engineering in the unpredictable economies to come.

The Press