Opinion: We are witnessing the end of an experiment with the democratisation of higher education in New Zealand. We aren’t the only country grappling with the seeming collapse of a university system that has opened its doors widely. Across the Tasman, Australian Catholic University is the most recent of many institutions to announce major deficits and accompanying mass redundancies.
How did we get here?
A century ago, most students were enrolled part-time and worked to pay rent and university fees. Many classes were at night to accommodate this.
In the 1960s, bursaries were introduced (one dimension of universalist aspirations in social policy paid for by progressive, and for some, high income-tax rates) and many more students were able to enrol full-time devoting themselves to their studies and social lives. Universities expanded their offerings, and by 1990 nearly 80,000 students were enrolled in university study in New Zealand.
* The crisis in tertiary education caused by inadequate funding
* In underfunding universities, we have so much to lose
* The crisis in our universities
* The university funding shortfall with no easy fix
The reforms of 1990 ushered in a new era. Polytechnics were placed on the same footing as universities and were able to offer degrees. Universities themselves were set up to compete against each other. Private training establishments were also able to access public funds.
Universities have been in financial crisis for more than a decade, keeping their heads above water through the recruitment of international students. Now they are drowning
For students, means-tested student allowances replaced bursaries, fees increased, and a student loan system was introduced. The cost of tertiary education shifted more on to students, who were encouraged – by universities funded by full-time-equivalent student numbers and possibly by parents who had been educated under the generous bursary system – to remain enrolled full-time.
Government decisions to prevent universities raising student fees above two percent (until this year when the cap was lifted to 2.75 percent) while reducing funding for some of our most popular degrees, as well as a range of other measures, have resulted in an inevitable death spiral. These decisions have been ultimately sanctioned by the social licence of voters.
Dollars and sense
Universities have been in financial crisis for more than a decade, keeping their heads above water through the recruitment of international students. Now they are drowning.
It is not just the government – whoever is in power after October 14 – that faces some hard questions about the future shape of our universities. They are also questions for everyone whose children are at school, who relies on research into disease and infirmity, who relies on expert advice to shape their practice (be it policymaking, policing, diagnosing, managing the nation’s heritage, building low-emissions buildings, forecasting weather, improving food safety), or who wishes to change careers in mid-life. They are questions for all of us.
We haven’t solved anything with these cuts. Once these people and specialisations are gone, we are still left with the glaring questions of what New Zealanders want higher education and research to look like and how we pay for it
It would be unacceptable to most New Zealanders to restrict university education to the wealthy, who can pay, or the exceptionally gifted, who get scholarships, as is the tradition elsewhere. This would inevitably see a narrowing of university participation to only those groups to whom it has traditionally served very well.
But governments over the past 30 years have also regarded it as unpalatable to voters to fund tertiary education adequately. Bluntly put, adequate funding of education (and health and all the other social services that are under evident pressure) will mean higher tax rates. A conversation is urgently needed about funding our aspirations as a society.
It may be difficult for those outside the university to understand our distress at the closure of programmes that seem ultra-specialised or archaic. It is more understandable that we are distressed by the cutting of so many jobs, so many academics with specialist knowledge and expertise who produce new knowledge, and many professional staff who support students in their health, study, life-skills, financial management, support with disabilities, and digital skills.
But please understand that we haven’t solved anything with these cuts. Once these people and specialisations are gone, we are still left with the glaring questions of what New Zealanders want higher education and research to look like and how we pay for it.