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NZ universities’ credibility at risk

The tertiary education sector was out in force at Parliament, fighting against a proposed amendment to the Education Act they say poses a huge risk to its credibility. Shane Cowlishaw reports.

Education reform continues to make its way through Parliament, with the tertiary sector the latest to air its concerns about the future.

The Government-sponsored Education (Tertiary Education and Other Matters) Amendment Bill is aimed at increasing funding flexibility for the tertiary system and strengthening the accountability and monitoring of the sector.

It grants the Minister the power to shift funding across the tertiary education sector as deemed necessary.

A clause has also been inserted that would allow a wānanga to call itself a university, with permission.

Education unions and the public education sector argue the proposed changes are a privatisation of the tertiary industry, with private training establishments given equal rights to taxpayer dollars as public institutions.

It is feared international companies will come and set up inferior establishments in the main centres, while sending profits offshore and eroding education options in the regions.

It follows the introduction of the Education (Update) Amendment Act in May, which was described as the biggest education shakeup in 30 years and introduced a raft of changes including online schools.

While changes to the under-18 sector have been adopted, those involved in the tertiary sector are fighting the proposed changes that they say could erode New Zealand’s international reputation.

A public good, not a private good

On Wednesday several academics took their chance, in front of the Education and Science select committee, to ram home their belief that the changes would damage New Zealand’s education system.

Professor Miriam Meyerhoff, of Victoria University’s School of Linguistics, said she had worked in both the private and public sector including 10 years in the UK.

After returning to New Zealand she was struck by how little money was put into higher education.

She was deeply concerned about the future if there was any watering down of universities’ existing support by diverting the money to private institutions, which would put them on a “track to oblivion”.

Bronwyn Wood, a senior lecturer at Victoria University’s School of Education, also addressed the committee.

In an unusual presentation, she brought along blocks of cheese and chocolate to illustrate her point.

She said the products represented industries that, when pushed too far for efficiencies, had suffered detrimental effects; damage to the environment in the case of dairying and the loss of jobs with Cadbury.

But if education was pushed in the same direction, the damage could be far worse, she warned.

It could lead to higher education being accessed only by elite groups in the main centres, destroying the concept of education for the benefit of all.

“There’s no point in privatising education, there’s too much to lose and not enough to gain.”

The comments were met by scepticism by National MP Jo Goodhew, who questioned why a government that was committed to ensuring all New Zealanders achieve their potential would want a system that failed to do so.

“I say to you that currently with funding of students, both in the public and private sector, both being equal, this bill is not changing as much as you suggest, there is already private institutions out there and I’m unsure still whether you’re contending they’re all totally inferior.”

Not all “universities” created equal

Academia rolled out its heavy-hitters for the select committee, with Auckland University Vice-chancellor Professor Stuart McCutcheon, Victoria University Vice-chancellor Professor Grant Guilford, and Universities New Zealand executive director Chris Whelan appearing as a triumvirate.

McCutcheon did most of the talking, starting off by stating that the group were not against equal funding for public and private courses, as long as they were of the same quality.

He said the problem was that not all institutions were up to that standard, describing some as “frankly ordinary”.

The proposed clause that would see Ministers able to approve private institutions to call themselves universities received the most criticism from the trio, who requested that it be scrapped entirely.

“There’s no point in privatising education, there’s too much to lose and not enough to gain.”

There was no “sensible or logical” reason for this to occur and could potentially damage the reputation of New Zealand’s eight universities, all of which were in the top 500 worldwide.

National’s Todd Muller asked why clauses in the bill that required NZQA and the Tertiary Education Commission to be consulted, plus the requirement that any institution met a university standard, were not adequate.

McCutcheon said they were unnecessary, as the current Act already provided a pathway for any organisation wanting to become a university, as AUT had done in the past.

He described the bill as having "no logic to it”.

Tertiary Education Minister Paul Goldsmith told Newsroom that both public and private providers worked to the same quality standards and that is why the Government equalised funding rates five years ago.

He said the bill put into law the current policy by establishing the principle of equal funding and no money was being diverted from public institutions.

Of the $132.1 million in extra funding announced in the Budget, it was estimated that about 90 percent would go to public providers, Goldsmith said.

“My priority is ensuring that students receive a quality tertiary education from their provider.

“Smaller regional institutions can be successful as long as they are responsive to the needs of the community and operate in a fiscally sound manner.”

Regarding the use of the word university, Goldsmith said he would read the select committee’s report with interest but there were strict requirements that would have to be met.

Additional requirements, such as allowing wānanga to only describe themselves as an indigenous university, could also be imposed.

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