Wednesday, June 28, 2023

John MacDonald: Propping-up the ivory towers is not the answer

For a long time now, I’ve thought that we have way too many universities in New Zealand.

And the current situation with the Government coming out with this $128 million dollar funding package only reinforces my view.

The money is going to mean universities getting more subsidies for degree and post-graduate enrolments over the next two years.

It’s another one of these one-size-fits-all band aids that the Government’s becoming very good at. When I say it’s become very good at this sort of thing, it’s not a compliment by the way. It’s just the easy option.

Like the cost-of-living payment debacle last year. Not everyone who got that needed it. But it was just easier to do it that way.

And the Government’s done the same with its tertiary rescue package.

Which is crazy. Because not every university is in the same dire situation that Otago and Victoria are in right now, planning major job cuts.

In fact, the University of Canterbury has finally reached the point after years of pain following the earthquakes where students are lining up at the door. UC is the place to be, apparently.

And going through some of its recent annual reports, there have been more surpluses than deficits in the last two-or-three years. Not that a simple surplus versus deficit argument tells the whole story. But you get the gist of what I’m saying. Not every university is struggling the same way that Otago and Victoria are.

I thought it was interesting that the Finance Minister was saying this morning that he wants universities to have a think about how they’re spending their money. But, at the same time, he’s throwing them $128 million. If only you and I could enjoy the same level of wishy washiness if we were needing help from the Government.

But, either way, by dishing out this rescue package the Government is continuing to ignore the elephant in the room.

Instead of giving universities more, with some sort of gentle expectation that they have a think about how their running things, the Government should be open and honest and just tell the universities that not all of them are needed.

Five million people and eight universities.

Two of them in Christchurch, two of them in Auckland. All eight universities are competing against each other. And some of them even operate in multiple cities.

Not that the current government is completely to blame. These problems date back to the late 80s and early 90s when both Labour and then National set-up the competitive model, which makes government funding dependent on how many students a university has.

It’s become known as the “bums on seats” model - the more students you get, the more funding you get. Which is why the University of Canterbury was in such strife after the earthquakes.

A truckload of students left, and others didn't want to come, so it got less funding from the government. And, at one point, it was chewing through its cash reserves at a rate of $100,000 every working day. $2 million a month.

Back then, the government of the day said it wouldn’t provide operational funding to pay for staff and all the other operating expenses, but it would consider funding for new facilities.

Which meant the university went through a two-year process of putting business cases together and, at the end of all that, got about $250 million to build a new science centre and upgrade the facilities at the Engineering college.

Which was great. But it didn’t fix the other problem we have - the much bigger problem we have - and that’s the fact that we have way too many universities in New Zealand.

What the Government came out with yesterday was just a one-size-fits-all band aid. A a temporary, two-year fix. And I know that, in two years' time, the problem won’t have resolved itself. Yes, we might have a few more international students coming here by then. But we’ll still have more universities than we need.

Or, more to the point, we’ll still have more universities than we can afford.

I’m not alone in my thinking. I saw a researcher the other week admitting that we could do with, at least, one less university.

But I think we also need to tell these universities to stick to their patch. Otago, for example, operates in Dunedin, Christchurch and Wellington. Massey is in Palmerston North, Auckland and Wellington.

All of them desperate for bums-on-seats. All of them competing against eachother. All of them desperately justifying their existence.

John MacDonald is the Canterbury Mornings host on Newstalk ZB Christchurch. This article was first published HERE


Anna Mouse said...

Waikato has IMO always been superfluous in its sense of purpose.

Lincoln clearly fills the agricultural aspects for the South and is aligned with CU and Massey for the North but both no doubt offer degrees that can be attained at every other university (like business/accounting/marketing for example).

The multiple campuses idea is just plainly stupid as this is a simple bums on seats funding model bound to fail (as it has).

The other issue is that over the years the Polytechnics ceased being 'trade schools' and started offering, you guessed it competing 'degrees'....which of course denegrates the univerity Bachelors but also sucks those students away from actual universities.

Not an easy solution but a simple fix would be to apply common sense.

Certain universities have certain strengths obviously (Vet/Medicine) so they are the go to for those courses.

Cut back on the degrees that see children rack up debt that they cannot pay back using their 'degrees' in the aligned workplace, we all know which ones these are.

Make the universities (and polytechs) more aligned with actual international research, thinking and developmental studies instead of our very NZ centric inward looking focus that has become more important to academics than academia itself.

Finally make the Polytechs go back to their core business in trade training (aligning them with apprencticephips etc) and stop trying to centralise them to homogeneity which strips them of their souls, staff and students.

Once you have the universities applying their core strengths in core courses and the polytechs doing what they were once great at then you'll see some defined regrowth with international students wanting to come back both for the character and the quality if the education.

These issues arose only because the entire tertiary industry has become (forced to become) just that, an industry that tries to cater to all people for all things whilst achieving almost nothing for few.

Anonymous said...

They are still serving their Marxist ideology purpose of indoctrinating the younger generation to be good comrades and current and future puppet leaders for the NWO agenda. In fact you will know the job is done when all student debt is forgiven.

Ken S said...

Is it true that Degrees For Everyone a satirical novel written by Bob Jones in 2004 has been moved from the fiction to the non-fiction section in all public libraries?