Comment: I came to Aotearoa New Zealand to teach European history at Victoria University of Wellington. As a European historian of science, educated in the US, I investigate and teach about the origins of the sciences in the period 1500-1700.

When I moved here 10 years ago, the range of research expertise across disciplines was diverse, strong, and of high quality, with course offerings to match. For a nation of then 4.4 million, its public universities were punching above their weight internationally. Since then, however, I have seen the sector be systematically underfunded.

The crisis in our universities
The university funding shortfall with no easy fix

At Victoria University, history is one of 59 academic disciplines in the arts and sciences – including art history, Asian studies, chemistry, classics, mathematics, physics, physical geography, languages, music, and others – “in scope” for staff cuts.

As practitioners in these specialties, we capture human affairs in all their complexity and seek to instil a genuine broadmindedness in our students. As teachers, we teach students how to get a feel for other cultures, ancient and modern, past and present. As researchers, we advance knowledge about human and natural worlds.

Our teaching and research do not happen in isolation. We work within institutional ecologies and cultivate partnerships with others outside of academia. As academics, we have connections to local iwi, the National Library of New Zealand, Archives New Zealand, Te Papa Museum, The Royal Society of New Zealand Te Apārangi, and so on.

In my teaching and research, the early modern science collection at the National Library of New Zealand in Wellington has been vital. Many of these crumbling, leather-bound volumes were produced over 400 or 500 years ago and hold the key to how early investigators studied nature and how their pursuits laid foundations for modern sciences.

Research will be crippled, innovation will be stymied, teaching subjects will be compromised, students will not reach their potential.

For example, my students have been struck by Johannes de Sacrobosco’s astronomy textbook, a multi-colour edition from 1488. Students have learned that it offers not only historical insight into the structure of the medieval cosmos. It also tells us what physical exercises the medieval astronomy student had to master in order to visualise how planets moved in space.

My students have also been delighted to discover that the polymath Athanasius Kircher risked been lowered into the crater of the active volcano Vesuvius to take temperature measurements, survived the mission, and produced a visual and textual account of it (also in the collection).

The library also holds a 1667 copy of Robert Hooke’s Micrographia which rendered the invisible microcosm visible for the first time. It was the first printed book on microscopy, which opened the field to further inquiry and mesmerised readers with magnificent engravings of minute creatures. For the first time people pored over magnified images of a louse clutching a human hair and of blue mould growing on leather that looks like a vibrant patch of wild flowers.

The current state of affairs is devastating. While universities should be responsible for managing their own finances, the cumulative impact of the current funding model that emphasises “bums on seats” above all other objectives and values has been brutal: complacency about this funding model has led to government underfunding of our sector.

There are secondary factors that have been more rapid and outside of the universities’ control, like rising inflation and costs of living, demographic change with fewer school leavers, the Covid-19 pandemic, and others. The open letters to the TEC and Minister of Education, signed by hundreds of signatories across the country, explain these reasons in full.

The consequences of drastically downsizing our universities are, and will be, far-reaching. Professor of Physics Nicola Gaston, scores of distinguished scientists, scholars, and alumni across the country have repeatedly warned of the destruction to come. The unprecedented scale of this downsizing will undercut the future prosperity and democratic values of Aotearoa New Zealand. Research will be crippled, innovation will be stymied, teaching subjects will be compromised, students will not reach their potential. We will lose research and teaching capacities in the arts and sciences which will be difficult to rebuild quickly.

The late physicist Sir Paul Callaghan had a vision for New Zealand as “the place talent wants to live”. However, I fear that the continuous underfunding of Kiwi universities takes us in the opposite direction. Faced with fewer fields of study in New Zealand, promising high-school students from wealthy whānau will choose to study at overseas universities. Those who cannot afford to go abroad, however, will have to make do with the reduced offerings at home. A lack of options will further entrench inequality and create a two-tier society. The repercussions will affect future generations of New Zealanders.

I urge the Government to intervene to stop the scale of redundancies across the universities.

Leave a comment