Improving governance or Government power grab?

June 2014


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The Government’s plans to reform university and wānanga governance councils to create smaller, skills-based councils have been opposed by many in the sector.

Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment Minister Steven Joyce’s proposed changes to university and wānanga governance councils have angered many staff and students.

The reforms will see the councils decrease from 12 to 20 members to eight to 12 members. Specific representative requirements will be removed and the Minister and councils will have rights to appoint members with “governance capability”.

Joyce says the Government will be appointing approximately a third of the members of each council, with the make-up of the rest of councils determined by each institution’s constitution.

Despite the increased control from Government, Joyce says the reforms will offer institutions more flexibility.

“Through these reforms, universities and wānanga will have more freedom to determine the make-up of their councils than under the previous highly prescriptive model,” says Joyce. “They can, for example, choose to retain student and staff representation, and I expect many, if not most, will.”

However, many groups don’t see it that way and have expressed concern over the Government’s increasing control of university governance.

Academic Freedom Aotearoa said the changes are an attack on academic freedom and do not provide enough separation between universities and government.

The Tertiary Education Union (TEU) agrees. President Lesley Francey says Minister Joyce is wresting control of universities and wānanga into the hands of his own ministerial appointees and of business supporters.

“As the Minister notes himself, New Zealand’s universities and wānanga are already financially stable and perform well internationally. There is no justification for these proposals, other than silencing local community voices that do not support the Minister’s own economic vision,” says Francey.

The New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations (NZUSA) shares this view.

“Our analysis of existing Council representation reveals that having a preponderance of Ministerial appointments is extremely dangerous. Eighty-six per cent of his appointments have been CEOs, company directors, accountants or commercial lawyers, none have had a background in higher education,” says Daniel Haines, president of NZUSA.

One of Joyce’s requirements for the reformed councils is that they must include at least one Māori person, which is in line with the Government’s aim to bolster Māori achievement levels.

However, Ivy Harper, Tumuaki of Te Mana Ākonga, the National Māori Students’ Association, says that while the association is pleased that Māori are included in the proposed governance structure, it is disappointing that democratically elected students, staff and other representatives are likely to lose their seats around the decision-making table.

Auckland University Students’ Association president Jessica Storey agrees.

“There are 40,000 students at The University of Auckland. It is not much to ask for two students to be elected to speak for them at a public institution where each student pays thousands of dollars in fees each year.”

However, it isn’t just student organisations that are miffed at the reforms.

The University of Auckland’s vice-chancellor

Stuart McCutcheon told Radio New Zealand that increasing the government’s influence over universities would harm their international reputation.

“I can’t see what the benefits will be because there has never been any demonstration that the current governance arrangements of universities are deficient. The New Zealand universities’ if you look at their world rankings relative to their income, are the most efficient universities in the developed world.”

Staff from Massey University have expressed concern that the proposed changes to university councils will make it harder for New Zealand institutions to attract full fee-paying international students.

Professor Frank Sligo, director of stakeholder relationships within Massey’s School of Communication, Journalism and Marketing, says those recruiting in China are concerned about the negative impact the Education Amendment Bill might have on their work.

“Those of us with experience in overseas recruiting in China worry about what will happen when the perception enters Chinese social media that the

New Zealand Government is increasing its control over our universities,” says Sligo.

“Chinese academics want their students to experience what they know they are not yet getting at home. They value New Zealand’s independence from direct government control. They want educational experiences that allow students to become independent, critical and creative thinkers.”

Sligo says that New Zealand universities are already trying to manage Chinese concerns about the declining status of New Zealand in the international rankings of universities.

“With international students spending approximately $26,000 per annum on international tuition fees, we are playing an enormously competitive game. Any perception that New Zealand universities are losing their independence will undermine our ability to recruit in China – and universities from other western countries will not fail to exploit this.”

However, despite this wide array of concerns about the effects of a change to the governance of universities and wānanga, the reforms are expected to come into play from 1 January 2016. 


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