Government wants to slash size of university councils

New Zealand’s government has proposed a major overhaul of university council membership that would slash the number of members and remove a statutory right to representation for staff and students.

Staff and students are worried by the proposal and have accused the government of treating universities as if they are businesses.

Currently universities must have between 12 and 20 members, four of them appointed by the government. The remainder must include the vice-chancellor and at least one representative each of academic staff, general staff, students, unions and business.

The government has proposed reducing the size of councils to between eight and 12 members and retaining only the requirement for four ministerial appointees. It would be up to institutions themselves to decide how they should appoint the remaining members.

Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce says he expects most universities would retain places for staff and students if his proposal goes ahead.

"My expectation is that most, if not all, universities will have some representative model, but my view is that they should focus very clearly on the skills of the individuals. These are very big businesses, billions of dollars of assets across our university sector.

“They hold the futures of New Zealand young people and it’s important that along with everything else we're doing, to look at the governance model and make sure it can move quickly and effectively to meet the challenges they face."

Joyce says there is no evidence of governance failure in universities, but large governing bodies in any sector are slow to make decisions and he wants universities to be quicker to adapt.

He says proposed changes also include a requirement that council members have the skills and experience required for good governance. They also seek to introduce expectations for council members, and sanctions for failure to meet those expectations.

New Zealand's universities guard their autonomy fiercely and it is not yet clear how vice-chancellors and chancellors will react to the proposal.

But staff and students are clearly opposed.

The secretary of the Tertiary Education Union, Sharn Riggs, says the proposal has a business focus that ignores the wider role of tertiary institutions.

"Basically it’s setting up a model of ensuring all of our tertiary institutions now are simply businesses, that they have no other connection other than being run as a business and delivering as a business."

She says universities will lose sight of their social role if the government slashes the size of their governing councils.

The president of the Union of Students' Associations, Pete Hodkinson, predicts substantial resistance from both staff and students against the proposal.

"The move to less representative government structures is neither necessary nor wanted," he says.

"If you have staff and students [represented], it sends the message that their voice is valued. This sends the opposite message."

Hodkinson says most universities would probably reserve a place for students on their councils, but if the law is changed there is a risk they will not.