'Uni of NZ' idea opens new chapter for academic rationing

6:59 pm on 10 September 2018

By David Cohen*

Opinion - You don't need a degree from Harvard to know that New Zealand is facing challenging times on the higher education front in 2018.

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If universities reconstitute under a single University of New Zealand, it would encourage them to operate mostly in their acknowledged areas of specialisation. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

A former Massey University chancellor, Russ Ballard, has proposed that the country's universities try to improve things by reconstituting themselves as a single University of New Zealand.

Dr Ballard's suggestion comes at a time when education barons are bracing for rocky times ahead. The country's flow of lucrative foreign fee-paying students New Zealand will not last forever, and the value of degrees and diplomas for all comers is facing renewed scrutiny.

Across the Tasman, researchers have warned that as many as half of all degrees could become "worthless" within a decade if the system there is not "drastically overhauled".

The country's eight universities - possibly just seven, if Dr Ballard had his way, although he is also iffy about Auckland joining the gang - would operate in unison with what we now call separate universities becoming branch campuses.

He said the universities could create a single administrative structure with one enrollment system and decide which functions were best delegated to individual institutions and which were best tackled centrally.

The campuses would still retain their own character and acknowledged areas of specialisation.

Implicit in the suggestion would be some sort of academic rationing. This would see at least some duplicates around the country phased out in favour of specific schools at just one or two campuses.

Thus, Victoria University (or the University of New Zealand at Wellington as it might be) would presumably get first dibs on religious studies, Canterbury on media programmes, Otago on medicine, and so on.

It would also presumably bring an end to the current practice of each university investing considerable effort in marketing campaigns. No longer would blameless bus passengers in Wellington be greeted each morning with hoardings enjoining them to "Know Your Mind" by enrolling for, say, a film studies degree up the hill in Kelburn.

In a sense, this is all back to the future stuff. New Zealand has been here before.

The University of Canterbury, for instance, might make much of the fact that it supported the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper as he crushed out his most important political work. That's a little misleading, though, because Popper was hired by what, at the time, was known as the University of New Zealand, of which Canterbury was simply a constituent college.

Overseas, some countries have never moved away from such a system.

In the trend-setting United States, college systems are still the default setting for the best public university education. Each of the 50 states has one, their enrollments and number of campuses fluctuating according to the size of the jurisdiction.

South Carolina, which has roughly the same population as New Zealand, has eight campuses within its state system, operating alongside (and in some cases against) dozens of other institutions - community colleges, liberal arts schools and private universities, many of them religious.

Such systems also compete against the ultimate in higher education systems - the venerable Ivy League (so-called as a nod for sporting reasons, as it happens) and other elite institutions like Duke and Stanford Universities that tend to get bundled in with the prestigious eight.

Increasingly, New Zealand universities face a similar looking competition from our own "community college" equivalents, a smattering of private institutions, dozens of universities in Australia and even the outreach wings of the Ivy League, which is always looking to nab the best and brightest young students.

The creation of a University of New Zealand could yet help keep those increasingly hungry wolves at bay.

*David Cohen is a Wellington journalist who has written frequently about higher education for publications around the world.

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