Universities worried by productivity investigation

New Zealand’s universities have warned that a government review aimed at increasing the productivity of the tertiary education system could undermine them.

In a submission published last week, Universities New Zealand says the review is too focused on new technology and could lead to significant changes that might harm the quality of teaching and range of programme choices at universities.

It also cautions against short-term responses and "faddish thinking", suggesting that the government should instead make long-term and strategic investments in university infrastructure.

The Productivity Commission began its year-long investigation in February with an issues paper that criticised the tertiary education system for “considerable inertia” and an unwillingness to try new things.

The paper also raised contentious issues such as universities that teach but do not conduct research and the lack of specialisation by different institutions of the same type.

It said increases in tertiary education in New Zealand had not translated into increased economic productivity.

The Universities New Zealand submission says the government should invest more in universities, especially in areas of strategic importance, and avoid short-term tinkering and fads.

Its executive director, Chris Whelan, said he was concerned that the review had a heavy emphasis on new technology.

“It has started by asserting, incorrectly in the case of universities, that tertiary providers are not adopting technology fast enough. But it hasn’t asked: 'What are the ways that young people learn best? And how can universities produce the most capable graduates possible?'."

Whelan said technology enriched and supported learning, but it did not replace the current system.

“What universities really need from government is future thinking and bold investment in infrastructure. What universities don’t need is short-term tinkering and faddist thinking.”

The Universities New Zealand submission says the government should increase funding in specific areas so that universities could work towards government goals such as increasing the number of students from Maori and Pacific Island backgrounds, and the number of graduates in maths and science.

It also said universities should be more involved with developing government policies that affected them, and the government should provide a national system for helping school-leavers select appropriate forms of tertiary education.

Chris Whelan defended the productivity of New Zealand’s university system, describing it as “one of the best in the world”.

He said: “New Zealand is unique in having all universities ranked in the top 3% in the world. Our graduates also enjoy excellent outcomes with the best completion rates, highest employment rates, and lowest levels of underemployment compared with every other country for which we have data.

“And we do this at 70% of the funding per student compared with countries like Australia.”

Funding constraints

But he also warned that universities face “considerable funding pressures” that are “limiting universities' ability to maintain quality and invest in new business models”.

Universities New Zealand has recommended that the government move away from providing all universities with a similar amount of funding under the Student Achievement Component cost category – the government’s contribution to the direct costs of teaching, learning and other costs driven by student numbers – and consider supplementing it to promote more differentiation and innovation.

As examples, it suggested using additional funding to ensure all students get degree-relevant work experience as part of the academic curriculum, or funding particular programmes supporting Maori students that had been shown to be effective.

According to Universities New Zealand, the government contributes 51% of university funding. Of the remainder, 28% is provided via student fees, including from international students, and 21% of income comes from research contracts and trading income.