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Reforms blind to universities’ aims

University of Auckland

University of Auckland

By Ananish Chaudhuri

Bill to cut size of councils and increase ministerial appointments would undermine institutions’ role in society.

A law before Parliament will dramatically change the composition and role of university councils. The council oversees the running of the university, and is empowered to appoint the Vice-Chancellor and shape the university’s mission and goal. The bill, under consideration by the Education and Science Select Committee, proposes to reduce the size of councils and increase the proportion of ministerial appointments.

It is essential that all right-thinking MPs – whether right or left orientated – vote against it so this bill is not ratified into law.

Why? There is simply no evidence that smaller councils are better. To the contrary, many leading universities have governing bodies larger than our 18 members. This list includes Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge and Stanford.

This policy will disenfranchise key stakeholders. The proposed bill only guarantees the involvement of the minister and of Maori. But surely our 6000 staff, 40,000 students and 164,000 graduates should have some say in the running of our university.

This is no longer guaranteed under this bill.

This policy will dramatically increase the proportion of ministerial appointees which is anathema to ideals of university autonomy and academic freedom, rights guaranteed by the Education Act of 1989.

Increasing the proportion of ministerial appointees need not be a problem but it is who the minister wishes to appoint that raises questions. The minister has said he intends to appoint people with business experience to run universities.

But there is no evidence that someone who has been successful in running a profitable business will have any expertise in running a non-profit university. This year the University of Auckland will earn gross revenues of $1 billion which makes us one of the largest enterprises in New Zealand. But the university is a very different organisation with a vastly different mission compared to corporate entities.

But wait, universities are public entities; does the Minister not have the right to dictate how they are run? No, he does not.

The judiciary is funded by taxpayers as well. Would you really be willing to put up with a situation where a minister hand-picks the judges?

The minister seems to have a distorted view of what constitutes the core function of a university. A critical function includes the development, preservation and dissemination of new knowledge and insights as well as its role as “critic and conscience” of society.

These ideals are not necessarily inconsistent with getting a degree, learning for a vocation or satisfying professional needs in society; but they are not the same things and if we overlook the ideals in favour of the other more utilitarian goals, we do so at our peril.

The minister has not argued our universities are badly run; the University of Auckland operates within the parameters laid down by the minister, particularly in terms of our operating surplus, a key performance metric for our Vice-Chancellor.

The minister’s move is an attempt to exert control over the governance and mission of our universities and thereby undermine one of the bulwarks of our democratic polity.

Section 161 (1) of the Education Act states Parliament’s intention to make sure academic freedom and the autonomy of institutions are preserved and enhanced. Section 161 (2) elaborates this as (a) the freedom of academic staff and students, within the law, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions; (b) the freedom of staff and students to engage in research; (c) the freedom of the institution and its staff to regulate the subject matter of courses; (d) the freedom of the institution and its staff to teach and assess students in the manner they consider best promotes learning; (e) the freedom of the institution through its chief executive to appoint staff.

It is because of the culture of inquiry and dissent that they foster that universities and their staff and students have always been at the forefront of democratic movements. It is this role of critic and conscience of society that these proposed changes are taking aim at because the nature of power demands less dissent and greater obeisance. 

* Professor Ananish Chaudhuri is head of Department of Economics at the University of Auckland Business School. The views expressed are his own. (NZ Herald)

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