Steven Joyce has decided to continue his fight with universities over the size of their Councils. Since May of this year he has sent signals that he thinks the Councils are “large and unweildly” and need to be more “entrepreneurial”. Most recently he has added that they are ‘slow to react’, not pursuing commercialisation of research as ‘effectively’ as they could and ‘lagging’ in international education initiatives.
The Universities have finally hit back at the latest accusations noting that we have the fifth highest rate of international students in the world, how they do well in innovation and that there is no evidence that the size of Councils is holding back institutions.
But make no mistake about what is really at stake here. This is about exerting more control over one of the pillars of a free and democratic society. By law, and in practice, universities have autonomy and academic freedom. They have this because they play a vital role in challenging and questioning what happens in our country and world. Their role as independent critic and conscience of society and their responsibility to the wider community will be undermined by greater Ministerial control over the membership of their governing body.
Of course we don’t know exactly what Mr Joyce wants to do because he has not been prepared to release any of the papers that he has received on this issue. I have requested them under the Official Information Act, and not only have I been denied access to the papers, he has even refused to tell me the titles. The Ombudsmen is currently considering that decision.
We can however, take a pretty good guess given what the government did to Polytechnics. They dramatically reduced the size of Councils, removed guaranteed representation from the community, including students and staff, and controlled the appointments of the leadership of the Council. With Polytechnics the Minister now appoints four people, who then in turn appoint another four. And they get to decide who is the Chair of the Council.
Despite not releasing any proposals, the Minister has been communicating with universities about the size of their Councils. I understand he has been trying to see if he can convince them to reduce in size without changing legislation. I don’t fancy his chances.
No one is trying to pretend that Universities have or should have carte blanche to spend taxpayer money as they please, but their independence and responsibility to the community should be sacrosanct.
The place and role of univeristies in New Zealand is delicately balanced in law. The Education Act gives them autonomy and academic freedom, but their strategy and funding are managed through the Tertiary Education Strategy (TES) and the investment plans agreed with the TEC. Steven Joyce passed up the opportunity at the start of this year to alter the TES, and so its vision and goals stand. Interestingly it does not emphasise the issues he is now accusing the Councils of failing to focus on sufficiently.
Beyond the point of principle, is this really the most important thing that Steven Joyce can come up with in terms of making univeristies a driving force of our economic and social development? He would be better served to be working alongside the sector on how it is going to provide the quality research and teaching that will drive innovation and academic excellence in the coming decades, and using the powers that he has to work with the sector to deliver the outcomes he wants.
Univeristies are not immune to change or to being given some direction, but launching a coup on the governing bodies of the institutions is a threat to an essential independent check and balance in our democratic infrastructure. It does not respect the role of universities in our society, nor is it in the spirit of the system that governns them. Back off Mr Joyce.