Universities face year-long productivity inquiry

New Zealand's tertiary education system is facing a year-long investigation by a government agency charged with providing advice on productivity improvements.

The New Zealand Productivity Commission launched an issues paper on 24 February that shows there will be no sacred cows in its investigation.

It is aiming to find new models of tertiary education that will help New Zealand institutions meet technological changes and international challenges.

The Tertiary Education Union, which represents thousands of staff in New Zealand's universities and polytechnics, is worried the inquiry will be used to pave the way for cost-cutting.

The issues paper says there is "considerable inertia" and an unwillingness to try new things in New Zealand's tertiary education system, which includes polytechnics, universities, Maori tertiary institutions known as wananga, and private institutions.

It asks for submissions on contentious issues such as teaching-only universities, a lack of specialisation and differentiation among institutions of the same type, and the extent to which government funding and regulations help or hinder innovation.

The commission's chairman, Murray Sherwin, says the inquiry will look at how the tertiary education system can innovate.

"This inquiry will look at where innovation does and doesn’t happen in tertiary education; why some parts of the system innovate more than others; and how the system overall could become more innovative to deliver better education outcomes,” he said.

“Our terms of reference ask us to investigate the opportunities offered by new technology and the other big trends in tertiary education, and consider how well tertiary providers can innovate to better deliver learning that meets the needs of students, employers, and the wider society.”

Sherwin says the investigation will also consider challenges such as falling numbers of domestic students due to demographic changes, and growing competition from foreign universities for both international student enrolments and for the best New Zealand students.

The national secretary of the Tertiary Education Union, Sharn Riggs, says the union is worried that the investigation has not spelled out what it means by productivity and innovation in a tertiary education setting.

"We're concerned that in the absence of the paper really defining things like what innovation means, what productivity means, that this becomes another way of maybe crunching some numbers to tighten up the sector from a funding perspective rather than from a productivity perspective," she said.

Riggs says New Zealand's public tertiary institutions have not been slow to adopt new technologies for teaching, learning and research, but there is a danger the Productivity Commission will see them as a way of saving money rather than improving the quality and depth of tertiary education.

She says tertiary education makes valuable contributions to society that go beyond improvements to the economy.

Submissions on the commission's issues paper are due by 4 May, and its final report to the government is due on 28 February 2017.