NEW ZEALAND: Vice-chancellor to head funding body

A vice-chancellor has been appointed head of the New Zealand government's tertiary education funding body but universities should not expect special treatment when Professor Roy Sharp takes over leadership of the Tertiary Education Commission in August.

The announcement this month that the University of Canterbury boss would be the commission's next chief executive surprised many and prompted university statements welcoming the appointment and noting the needs of their sector.

The commission distributes US$2.35 billion in government funding for the entire tertiary sector including universities, polytechnics, Maori tertiary institutions, private bodies and industry training organisations. Some in the university sector believe more money should be going their way.

But in his first public statements, Sharp was quick to play down any expectation that he would give universities preference.

"I'm an advocate for tertiary education and I'm also an advocate for fairness and transparency and getting value for money. I can't make any pre-judgements," he told this reporter.

He also noted the financial constraints he would be working under. "We have got a limited budget, and it's a big budget, and we have to get the very best we can from that budget because tertiary education is so important for the future of the country," he said.

Such caution and diplomatic phrasing are typical of Sharp, although they might not be welcomed by his university colleagues. Sharp is a leader in the managerial rather than charismatic mould. Bearded and white-haired, he is quietly spoken, careful in his choice of words and has long experience in higher education management.

His career started 35 years ago at the University of Auckland, where he was variously an engineering lecturer, dean of engineering, assistant vice-chancellor and deputy vice-chancellor. In 1997 he became deputy vice-chancellor at Victoria University of Wellington, and in early 2003 vice-chancellor of the University of Canterbury in Christchurch.

For the past five years he has led Canterbury through a period of long-overdue restructuring that included a merger with a neighbouring teacher training institution and a return to healthy financial surpluses. Perhaps critically, Sharp also has experience with other types of tertiary institutions, having been a council member for a polytechnic and for a Maori tertiary institution or wananga. More recently he has worked with a polytechnic as part of the Canterbury Tertiary Alliance.

"I am very much aware that the tertiary sector is much, much wider than the universities," he said. "Tertiary education is very important for the future of this country and it is not just the universities, of course."

That statement and track record will be reassuring for New Zealand's 20 polytechnics and three wananga. In addition, although Sharp is a university man, they are likely to be happy that the commission has appointed a tertiary education manager rather than a bureaucrat to the key role of chief executive.

Nevertheless, Sharp's university experience and contacts will be more than useful for the commission in the next few years. The commission has been ushering in a series of reforms, which see it negotiating each tertiary provider's funding, including for growth and new areas of provision. A key focus has been cutting polytechnic and wananga courses regarded as having low value.

The country's eight universities have not been deeply affected by this process, although there were apparently difficult negotiations last year when the commission refused to fund as much growth as some universities wanted this year. An important next step will be encouraging the universities to differentiate themselves from one another and focus more on their individual strengths.

Implicit in this government goal is an expectation that some institutions will drop particular courses and that not all will be equal. This will be a delicate process, particularly as New Zealand's universities are granted institutional autonomy and academic freedom by statute. Sharp is keenly aware of the balance of power in this situation.

"TEC has to work with institutions that have a great deal of statutory autonomy and in a situation like that it has to be a partnership. Broadly speaking, I support the reforms and it is the details we need to work out," he said.

The reference to a partnership between the commission and universities is a key point. Does it exist yet? Yes, Sharp believes, but only in an embryonic way. He takes over the Tertiary Education Commission on 4 August. He replaces Janice Shiner, a Briton. Sharp is himself of British extraction but is quick to point out that while he lived in the UK for 25 years he has now been in New Zealand for 35.

* John Gerritsen is editor of NZ Education Review.