Opinion: A university by any other name

The Government wants to change the rules to allow a minister to consent to institutions using the term "university", ...
Cameron Burnell/ stuff

The Government wants to change the rules to allow a minister to consent to institutions using the term "university", when they do not meet the legal definition of a university.

OPINION: "Who can call themselves a dentist or medical doctor or social worker? The answer, of course, is only those who are trained and qualified to do so. Understanding who you are dealing with is important.

Yet the Government is proposing to increase the range of organisations that could, with ministerial approval, call themselves a university. This week the Vice-Chancellors of New Zealand's eight universities presented a submission to Parliament's education and science select committee strongly opposing the proposed changes.

Our view is straightforward. Only universities should be able to call themselves a university.

What is a university? Well, that's already defined by law and it relates particularly to the level and quality of teaching and research undertaken by the institution. The law says you can apply to become a university if you meet the requirements, which are clearly set out in the education legislation. Similarly, it describes what is a polytechnic and what is a wananga.

We have no problem with institutions that meet the statutory definition of a "university" being allowed to adopt that title. Provision already exists for them to do so on application to the minister. AUT did just this in 2000 when it became a university.

But the Government wants to change the rules to allow a minister to consent to institutions using the term "university" in their names, when they do not meet the legal definition of a university.

These terms and titles are protected under legislation to avoid unintentionally confusing or deliberately misleading students, parents and future employers - both here and overseas. We then know what to expect when we deal with a dentist, doctor, social worker or university.

We were therefore surprised and disappointed to see the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, and Employment, Paul Goldsmith, being quoted in the media as saying "additional requirements, such as allowing wananga to only describe themselves as an indigenous university could also be imposed".

To us, this implies that the Government has already made up its mind to go ahead with a change that will cause real confusion and damage, both nationally and internationally.

New Zealand is one of the few countries to have all its universities ranked within the top 2.5 per cent of 17,500 universities globally. Our university system is so well regarded internationally that it attracts around 27,000 international students each year who contribute more than $1 billion annually to our economy.

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While we take this for granted, it's not the case in many countries, where it's often "buyer beware". In these countries, students need to work out for themselves if the education they are investing in is of high quality and likely to lead to good jobs, or is of low quality and likely to just produce debt.

That's not as easy as it sounds – and has resulted in situations such as we recently saw in the United States with Trump University settling a class action with 3330 disgruntled students who were left unemployed and saddled with high debt because of the low quality of their degree.

The risks to our reputation are real. We have recently seen the damage to New Zealand's reputation from scurrilous providers offering dodgy tertiary qualifications – marked by low completion rates and rampant plagiarism – and peddling them as a fast track to residency.

To the best of our knowledge there is no other industry or profession where this (or any other recent government) has removed protections around the use of key terms or titles.

For the sake of future students and employers both here and overseas, we strongly urge the Government to retain the current definition, where a university is a university, and where students, families and employers can be confident of the quality of what they are paying for.

Professor Stuart McCutcheon is chairman of Universities New Zealand, and Professor Harlene Hayne is the deputy chair.

 - The Dominion Post

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