Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Professor John Raine: Refocusing our Universities on Excellence

Many will have raised a glass to the 27th March Government announcement of the establishment of the University Advisory Group (UAG), which will consider the effectiveness of the current university system in supporting teaching and research. There are key issues to address around the university business model, operational efficiency, and the loss of political neutrality.

University Funding and Business Models

Universities now wrestle with a Government contribution, down relative to inflation by over 40% over the past 34 years. The market-led business model should likely be reshaped towards a capping of numbers of students at university, so that more will study at polytechnics towards valuable vocational and other skills needed by employers.

The present situation has been aggravated by a ballooning in numbers of administrative staff relative to academics. Some support services are essential, but our ratio of non-academic to academic staff of 1.5 to 1 is much higher than in Australia, the UK, or the USA (where it is about 0.8 to 1). Battalions of “managers” and support staff have appeared in areas such as Human Resources, Health and Safety, Student Learning Support and Pastoral Care, Outreach, Māori and Pasifika directorates, and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) support (including LGBQTI+). This bureaucratic inefficiency has been offset by the massive growth in full-fee-paying international student numbers from the mid-late 1990’s to create a $5Bn (2019) export industry, but international revenue losses led to large-scale redundancies when the Covid-19 lockdowns and border closure occurred.

Equity versus Excellence

Over about 30 years, New Zealand’s education system has progressively adopted socially constructed learning approaches that involve sometimes anti-science “other ways of knowing” and a focus on equity ahead of excellence. This situation has contributed to falling standards and achievement from primary through to tertiary levels, and funding of some research of limited quality and reach.

In the tertiary sector specifically, a critical issue for universities throughout the Western world, has been the ideological shift away from institutional political neutrality, and a focus on teaching and research excellence, towards the critical social justice (CSJ) politics of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). I have, with co-authors, touched on some of these developments in several articles [for example, references 1 - 5]. DEI agendas focus mostly on race and gender identity issues and have become, ironically, oppressive and exclusionary. This shift has been fostered in New Zealand by the Ministry of Education (MoE), and in research funding, by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE). DEI activism in our universities is an aggravating factor in their present financial difficulties.

CSJ activism has led to a loss of freedom of speech and of academic freedom more widely within universities in the Western world, self-censoring of research journals to avoid giving offence to any particular identity group and, worst of all, widespread career-damaging cancellation or even loss of employment for staff who speak out against the overbearing nature of institutional DEI policies. New Zealand academic staff have not been immune from this.

Open Inquiry versus Indoctrination

In New Zealand campuses, CSJ politics have been demonstrated through the universities declaring themselves te Tiriti-led and incorporating Te Ao Māori as a dominant culture within the university. This situation has caused a de facto politicisation of the sector, and the introduction within science programmes of matauranga Māori courses (to become mandatory in 2025 in at least one university) is moving these institutions away from open inquiry and debate to places where some taught material that includes aspects of myth, vitalism and animism cannot be questioned. Such an environment leads to a culture of indoctrination, which should have no place in a university.

By all means, let us study and celebrate indigenous and traditional knowledge from New Zealand and other countries, but within the university context all subjects should allow open exploration, doubt and discussion of new ideas. The promotion by MoE and MBIE of equivalent status (mana orite) between matauranga Māori and modern science may have been well-intentioned but can only be seen as a cultural relativist assertion that does not stand scientific scrutiny.

Matauranga Māori involves wide knowledge from observation of nature, including flora and fauna, a phenomenological understanding of ecosystems, local geology and geography, the weather and celestial navigation. However, without written language, metal smelting, the wheel, mathematics, all of the physics, chemistry and biology, and advances of modern science, in technological terms matauranga Māori corresponds to knowledge in other societies predating 3000 BC. 

Philosophical and scientific advances of the liberal enlightenment, from about the mid-17th century to the present day, have delivered huge benefits in health, nutrition, domestic comfort, quality of life, life expectancy, and a codified legal system that were not available from indigenous knowledge systems. Advances of modern science have been described as tools of colonial oppression. In my view they are not, and science itself is universal and apolitical. The technology developed from science has sometimes been used for political ends, and not all scientists have behaved with integrity or compassion, but the Ministry of Education should not be inviting our young people to believe that mathematics is neither benign, neutral nor culture-free [6].

Where to from here?

Thirteen recommendations for recovery of the university sector were made to the incoming Government in a letter to the Post of 3rd November 2023 [4]. While funding and operational efficiency must be addressed, critical among these recommendations were that our universities:

(i) Remain entirely neutral at the institutional level on all matters related to the politics of diversity, equity, inclusion, and cultural affiliation to any one ethnic group, while supporting open academic discourse on all matters within the institution. In this regard, university Councils and Vice Chancellors would do well to remember the words in the USA Kalven Committee Report of 1967 [7] on the vital need for institutional neutrality: “The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic”.

(ii) Ensure that true academic freedom and freedom of speech exists within their institutions.

(iii) Refocus on a merit-based system of recruitment, selection and promotion for staff, and merit-based admission and assessment of students, neither of these driven by ideological or political agendas.

A Symposium on The Future of Our Universities

On May 15th 2024, a symposium “The Future of our Universities”, organised by the New Zealand Initiative and the Royal Society Te Apārangi Wellington Branch, will be held at the Royal Society Te Apārangi premises in Wellington. This symposium comes at a pivotal time for academia throughout the Western World.

This symposium must look beyond the ideologies that are damaging our education system and address what must be done for our universities to become politically neutral, excellence-focused, economically viable and efficient, offering a wide range of programmes across the sciences and humanities, as well as ensuring that we deliver the numbers and quality of graduates to meet the needs of professions such as engineering, IT, law, medicine and teaching. At a time when even the continuation of democracy in New Zealand society has come into question, it is vital for academia, both to recapture the values of open inquiry of the liberal enlightenment, and to find a way to welcome indigenous and traditional knowledges without their presence being imposed as a quasi-political requirement.

1. John Raine, David Lillis, and Peter Schwerdtfeger, “Where are our Universities Heading?” Breaking Views, 28th June 2023. (Reprinted in Bassett Brash and Hide 29th June 2023)
2. Peter Schwerdtfeger, John Raine, David Lillis. “Post-modernism and the Degrading of Education in New Zealand “Breaking Views, 24th July 2023
(Reprinted in Bassett Brash and Hide 25th July 2023)
3. David Lillis, John Raine, Peter Schwerdtfeger. “Funding of Research in New Zealand” Breaking Views, 18th August, 2023. (Reprinted in Bassett Brash and Hide 19th August, 2023)
4. Peter Schwerdtfeger, John Raine et al. “The Challenge of Sustaining a World-Class University System”. The Post, 3rd November 2023.
5. John Raine, “Can our Universities Rescue Themselves from Politicisation?”, Bassett Brash and Hide, 15th December 2023.
6. “The Common Practice Model – Phase 1: Principles and Pedagogical Approaches”, Curriculum Centre (Te Poutahu), Ministry of Education, 2023.
7. Kalven Committee Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action, University of Chicago, 11th November 1967. Report on the University's Role in Political and Social Action (Kalven) (

John Raine is an Emeritus Professor of Engineering who held Pro Vice Chancellor or Deputy Vice Chancellor roles in three New Zealand universities. He formerly had responsibilities for international student operations and international relations at Massey University and the University of Canterbury. This article was first published HERE


Gaynor said...

There is a prevailing attitude, I find, among teachers , parents and politicians that the MoE and associates mean well.They are trying to do their best for the SES gap in achievemet which means, in NZ ,one of the longest tails of underachievement in the developed world which includes a disproportionate number of Maori and Pacific people.

Well the truth is Progressive education itself has produced this inequity. For the disciples of Progressivism, the dominant ideology in our educational institutions,this blunt truth is preposterous, and they recklessly continue on with their failing pedagogies and ideologies. Self examination is certainly never going to be part of their schema.

About a hundred years ago John Dewey and his followers settled on the formula:they would take over schools of education;they would brainwash future teachers to care more about social engineering than traditional education and these teachers would go forth into our schools everywhere to brainwash children and parents into accepting less education, degrading of quality and of course deliberate dumbing down. Here is malice aforethought, and a steely dedication to a subversive agenda, throughout the Western World. Aim:to produce a socialist dream.

Progressivism is a synonym for inevitable regression and destruction of all we value in traditional education and as long as we tolerate this sinister ideology we will have no improvement in any area of our education. DEI, CSJ and all that morass of educababble is sheer humbug. How convenient to use Colonisation as the cause of inequity instead of looking inwards to the corrupt ideology.

David Lillis said...

During the 1990s and up to recently, New Zealand funded research on the basis of two criteria – Excellence and Relevance. Relevance had to do with judgements of the potential for proposed research to deliver benefits and outcomes. We should not fund research on excellence alone and we have duty of care to consider wise and prudent use of public money and attempt to extract good things for the people, the economy and the environment of New Zealand. Research can indeed deliver outcomes actoss many domains and sectors and over the long term.

Research excellence is not a difficult construct, though may look a little different in the private sector as opposed to the public sector and different again in environment and climate as opposed to public health etc.

Today we hear concerns about our country backing away from excellence as a condition of funding for research. Are we really re-configuring our notions and definitions of research excellence? If so - why?

If we re-define research excellence in order to accommodate diverse world views, then potentially we could end up funding almost anything that looks even remotely like research and the endgame will be a destination in which our national effort in science and research is diminished - and possibly significantly so. Unfortunately, we really are diluting excellence, and so we must raise the temperature on this debate.

Would you take funding from an institution that performs international-class research on the human immune system and novel treatments for cancer, and give that money to research into folk medicine and traditional remedies?

Some of the material coming out of our research institutes looks more like political activism than scholarship. Research is supposed to be objective in its intent and in its praxis, but too often we see motivated reasoning in order to justify some particular ideology. Particularly dangeouus when this stuff is incorporated within policy.

New Zealand must do better!
David Lillis

Anonymous said...

Raine gives an excellent outline of the appalling situation in universities, and Lillis makes some very good points also.

It’s important to distinguish between an individual academic’s work and teaching – which quite rightly should be fairly independent of interference – and institutional promotion of a particular political agenda. An individual academic should be free to promote a viewpoint and for that viewpoint to be robustly critiqued in the academy. But it is quite another thing for a political agenda to be promoted at an institutional level. This is fraught with risks for anyone brave enough to critique and disagree with it, and in effect undermines freedom of academic debate.

Perhaps the reviews of PBRF and the university sector will curtail this a bit, for example if extra weighting is removed for research by certain favoured ethnicities simply for being research about those ethnicities and authored by people belonging to those ethnicities. I’m not holding my breath, though, and for now at least this institutional-level politicisation of identity politics only seems to be getting worse day on day despite the change in government.


Gaynor said...

A specific example of fraudulent and ideologically driven research was Marie Clay's work on Reading Recovery (RR). Her research originally was carried out in the 1970s,and RR's application was world wide. The NZ government spent millions of dollars advertising it.

How on earth did something, so wrong and despite mountains of educational research over decades including new findings in neuro and cognitive science, not be overthrown until last year? It took a US $7 million dollar project involving tens of thousands of remedial students, to definitively conclude students who participated in RR were worse off than non-participants. Meanwhile millions of children were damaged in their learning.They will never reach tertiary level.

This illustrates for me what a stranglehold ideology has on research. May this be a warning to NZ. Science and learning is worthless without a commitment to just truth and integrity.