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Universities' challenge to maintain autonomy and academic freedom

By Michael Belgrave

Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce's proposal to amend the governance of universities is timely given the dramatic transformation of universities likely in coming decades.

Strong, viable and independent universities are crucial to our future as they have been to our past over the last 150 years. Without universities there would be no modern world as we know it. Engineers building skyscrapers in Shanghai speak the same technical language as those rebuilding Christchurch. Medical discoveries in the University of Auckland or Johns Hopkins are soon being taught to students at universities in Singapore or Cape Town.

But public universities, the New Zealand model, are not companies, nor are they government departments. Much of what universities do is still steeped in their pre-modern past. This goes well beyond academic dress and graduation ceremonies. Mediaeval universities issued masters and bachelors degrees, as do universities today. They taught by lectures, tutorials and examinations. Their scholars debated knowledge and filled their libraries with works that reflected the finest thought of their day. All of this continues today because it works and has proved a remarkable platform for globalisation, taking knowledge and skills not only to new places but to far wider groups of people than even the 19th centure university thought possible.

Universities have proved flexible, resilient and successful because they have adapted to the scientific and industrial revolution beginning in the 18th century, providing a knowledge and skills-based education to the many highly specialised professions on which today’s world depends. University research provides the knowledge that supports the emergence of a global citizen, with research and academic programmes which go well beyond the sciences, to include the social sciences, the humanities and the expressive arts. Ensuring that New Zealand has universities that are recognised as being part of this international community of knowledge, exploration and debate is crucial for New Zealand's future.

Change is clearly on the way. Universities have, until now, been tied to specific places –  they were the University of Cambridge, or of Canterbury or Waikato. They spread across the globe taking university degrees and their research to where the students, communities and business were, or they cultivated leafy, country campuses where the students went to them. Distance programmes, such as those taught by Massey University since the 1960s broke some of this tyranny of location, but now we are on the verge of a new era where lectures, tutorials and examinations can be delivered to students effectively without them ever setting foot on a university campus.

Students in Helensville could be able to be enrolled for degrees at Harvard or MIT (whether in South Auckland or Massachusetts) or in the University of Auckland from Albuquerque or Alexandria. But we are not there yet. The internet allows information to be transferred to an almost unlimited number of students, such as through Massive Open Online Courses, known as MOOCs. The impact of this technology to teaching is similar to that of sound to silent movies – huge potential but, until mastered, restricting the creativity of film-makers.

Despite much fanfare, MOOCs are little more than online versions of borrowing the text from a library and reading it yourself. Universities are still working on how to transfer learning across the internet and this is a much more difficult task. Learning involves debate and exchange of information from lecturer to student and from student to student, it involves a culture of learning, processing information into knowledge, still much more easily occurring face to face than across the internet. When universities have developed standardised and financially viable ways of transferring learning as well as information across the internet, in the same way that Massey University used cheap printing, photocopying and the post in its extramural programmes half a century ago, then the real revolution will begin.

In the light of these changes, New Zealand universities need to have the best governance they can get. Councils need to ride the opportunities that crisis brings and yet be prepared to preserve and adapt those essential aspects of being universities that are part of their heritage because they continue to work.

It is therefore entirely appropriate to consider whether the representative model that has dominated university governance in New Zealand for many decades is sufficiently robust for the challenges ahead.

Mr Joyce proposes to replace councils that represent constituencies – students, staff, employers and trade unions – with councils where each member has specific skills that can contribute to university governance. While councils will reduce in size the number of ministerial appointments will not. This puts much greater (but not absolute) power over universities in the hands of the government of the day.

Universities have cherished independence, both academic freedom for staff and the independence of the institution from both governments and any other single sector or community of interest, as being fundamental to their ability to respond to the overall needs of society. They have succeeded because they balanced academic independence with the social and economic needs of the communities they serve, as they are required to do under section 160 of the Education Act 1989. It is an ongoing and far from stable see-saw.

Their international credibility depends on this independence, which goes much further than being the critic and conscience of society. Academic independence allows universities to generate the knowledge and skills that are essential to the future wealth and culture of a civilised society by following knowledge wherever it leads and not just responding to the short-term commercial or social needs of business or the political needs of government.

With the independence of being part of the University of New Zealand, Massey Agricultural College in the 1920s and 1930s was able to avoid pressure to be no more than a cipher for the Minister of Agriculture. It undertook ground-breaking and long-term research driven by academic responses to the rural economy.

Not being too beholden to industry, this research gave the country the Drysdale and Perendale sheep breeds, while still supporting the needs of other breeders’ associations. Being too close to industry leaves universities at risk of becoming research and development agencies for existing technologies and existing companies, and not agents of innovation and change, across a broad range of business, scientific and cultural activities.

Universities do not in themselves generate wealth. They create new knowledge and skills from which wealth can be created. To do this they must be part of an international community of scholars, teachers and researchers, which also requires independence.

The current representative system for university governance protects independence by ensuing enough different interests are represented on councils that they cannot be captured by any single group. A smaller council of twelve members, let alone eight, cannot balance these interests, particularly when a third or a half of the members are government appointees. It is also hard to see how these new councils could have any elected members, when each member is required to have specified skills. Elections could well produce members without these required skills and therefore unable to take up the position.

If the composition of councils is to preserve university independence under the Education Act, then it needs to be based on a different principle. The following section of the act provides one possible answer. Section 161 declares that "academic freedom and the autonomy of institutions are to be preserved and enhanced", and goes on to define academic freedom as the freedom of students and staff to undertake research and of the "institution and its staff" to teach and regulate what is taught. In practice universities have committees delegated by council to consider academic matters. At Massey, there is an Academic Board, college boards and forums, which have their origins in the university’s monastic past. Other universities have similar committees, but different names. These give academics a voice in issues relating to teaching and research and they deal with the mountain of regulations required in managing a university’s complex portfolios of qualifications, many of which reflect the needs of external professional bodies as well as the expectations of university study. Universities are increasingly complex organisations and their specialist functions and diverse objectives difficult to comprehend.

Having strong academic participation in the governance of universities serves two purposes. It gives councils access to the highly specialised knowledge of teaching and research, critical to effective governance; but equally, it provides a way of protecting academic freedom and institutional independence. Under their present constitutions, staff are represented by election, including non-academic staff, and by nomination by academic board. If academic boards, or their equivalent, have the responsibility of nominating a significant number of council members, the same as appointed by the Tertiary Education Minister, councils are more likely to be consistent with sections 160 and 161 of the Education Act. Members nominated by academic boards would not be representing the employment interests of staff, but providing academic expertise to the workings of councils. There should be no requirement for all those nominations to be members of academic board themselves. They could be existing academics, alumni, students or emeritus professors – all those identified as part of the university under Section 3(2) of the Massey University Act.

The minister would probably respond by saying, that nothing in his proposal prevents this from occurring. Existing councils, when they lay out the terms of membership for the new streamlined councils that will replace them (which appears to be the process for creating the new councils) could well provide for members nominated by Academic Board. It would be preferable for amending legislation to require councils to include academic expertise on councils. While to universities, the skills needed in university governance must include knowledge of the academic life of the university, ministers believing that corporate boards can, like AA Milne’s Tigger, govern anything, may be less convinced. The intelligent and well-argued Hughes Parry report of 1959, which largely created our current university system, had the wisdom to recommend its proposed University Grants Committee (pre-cursor to the Tertiary Education Commission) be split between non university and university appointments. Any amendment to the legislation should do the same.  However, if the proposal is implemented as it stands, then it will be up to existing councils, using the new framework to ensure that their membership proposal is consistent with academic freedom and the independence of the institution.

Michael Belgrave is Professor of History at Albany in the School of Humanities and is currently writing a history of Massey University.


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