Academics in New Zealand going down the tubes

June 30, 2023 • 9:15 am

I’ve written many times about the decline of academics in New Zealand over the past 20 years. This is not a matter of debate; it’s shown by many statistics. One site, for example, gives the data and, quoting from other sources, says this:

The New Zealand education system is also now one of the most unequal in the world. The gap between the educational “haves” and “have nots” eclipses all our English-speaking OECD peers. All this, despite Government spending per child increasing in real terms by more than 30% since 2001.

Here is more from Roger Partridge (2020).  Here is a 2022 update:

Low attendance at school is another sign the country’s education system is slipping with children from lower socio-economic areas the worst affected, the executive director of the New Zealand Initiative says.

The New Zealand Initiative is a think tank which carries out research to help New Zealand plan for the future.

It has commented on new research by the Education Review Office that shows children are missing school more in New Zealand than other English-speaking countries.

The office found four in ten parents were comfortable with their child missing a week or more of school per term and a third of students did not see going to school every day as that important…

The education system had been declining for 25 years and data backed up his view, such as the Pisa study carried out by the OECD. As an example, in maths the knowledge of a 15-year-old New Zealand student equated to a student aged 13 and a half 20 years ago.

Also from 2022:

In the past 12-18 years, New Zealand’s scores had declined by 23 points for reading, 22 points for science and 29 points for maths. The OECD estimated that 30 points was equivalent to one-year of learning.

If you want more, see this article from the New Zealand Herald, this one from the Waikato Business News, this one from Stuff,  this one from the New Zealand Initiative, and a post I wrote about the data in June. All sources agree on this decline, though the government, bent on achieving educational equity rather than quality, doesn’t seem to care much.

The post below by three Kiwi professors highlights the problems even more, blaming them on “misplaced social justice activism” that is hurting all groups in NZ, including the Māori, supposedly the beneficiaries of much of the new reforms. The problem is that the government, which is about as woke as they come, wants to reform education by making it more Māori-centric instead of making it more rigorous.

One sign of this, which I’m not going to dwell on today, is the explicit drive to teach science in such a way that modern science (misleadingly called “Western science”) is taught as co-equal to Māori “ways of knowing” (Mātauranga Māori, or MM), which, while including some empirical evidence, is also laden with myth, legend, superstition, religion, and morality.  I cann’t emphasize to the reader how much the drive to sacralize the ways of indigenous people has permeated the country. But in the end this will make it more parochial and less able to compete with similar countries for educational status and achievement.

Kiwis dare not question this drive as it puts their jobs and reputations in jeopardy. But the three below took the chance:

Click to read.

A few quotes:

Social justice activism is potentially damaging to the New Zealand university system and society as a whole (see the recent article by Peter Winsley [3]). University students must, of course, be free to study and debate social justice issues, but it is the place of the State, the courts, and charities to deliver social justice, not the university itself. Universities should be places of open enquiry in the quest for evidence-based truth and of open debate on matters of controversy, but not institutions where subjective experience or an ideological view is presented as an unarguable truth and becomes indoctrination.

. . . Social justice activism is potentially damaging to the New Zealand university system and society as a whole (see the recent article by Peter Winsley [3]). University students must, of course, be free to study and debate social justice issues, but it is the place of the State, the courts, and charities to deliver social justice, not the university itself. Universities should be places of open enquiry in the quest for evidence-based truth and of open debate on matters of controversy, but not institutions where subjective experience or an ideological view is presented as an unarguable truth and becomes indoctrination.

Some dangers of speaking out (there are far more incidents like these than I could recount):

Here in New Zealand, a senior academic was recently warned that questioning a perceived fall in academic standards would lead to disciplinary action. Also in New Zealand, failing to address matauranga Māori (Māori knowledge, including traditional concepts of knowledge) in contestable funding grant applications, even in mathematics or fundamental physics, may jeopardise the chance of winning a grant. These are just [two] examples of situations that have become commonplace.

. . . Many academics are uncomfortable with the direction that is now being taken but are afraid to speak out for fear of loss of promotion prospects, disciplinary action, being labelled racist, or even finding their names on one of the current redundancy lists.

Even questioning whether MM should be taught as coequal to modern science in science class also got seven signers of the famous Listener letter in trouble; all were demonized, some demoted. and two were reported to New Zealand’s Royal Society, of which they were members. (The “investigation” fizzled.)

I’ll skip the rest of the article except to highlight the solutions offered by the authors—solutions that are sensible but seemingly impossible to enact:

How do we turn all of this around? Possible actions are:

Incentivise freedom of speech and political neutrality. It is not the remit or responsibility of the university to be the kind and conscionable face of the State, or of any political party. For that we have the justice system and Government agencies. Government does not own our universities but, of course, is a major funder. It could influence internal policy by strong encouragement of freedom of speech, and by rewarding an absence of social justice politics driving programmes and staff behaviours. This could occur through, for example, targeted funding around best practice in the neutral role of “critic and conscience of society” and/or international teaching and research relevance. While social justice issues should be widely debated, a university’s operating culture should not be driven by social justice political agendas.

Carry out an internationally benchmarked review of university funding and reset base student funding levels, with a higher proportion of government funding supporting institutional operations. The level of student fees for the various programme categories will also have to be reviewed. Conversely, we would ideally deliver fees-free degree education, but if this is not possible, then access to university education could be ensured for students of limited means by funding targeted, need-based scholarships. Internally, universities should refocus a greater proportion of expenditure on core teaching and research.

Re-focus the Performance Based Research Fund back from its recently increased social justice focus to a renewed emphasis on research excellence and relevance.

Reboot Immigration New Zealand to ensure that ample, properly trained capability is present to deliver a speedy and effective international student visa service. Finance Education New Zealand and universities for an intensive and extended marketing campaign in key overseas source countries for international enrolments.

Generate an agreement between the eight universities around commitment to maintaining international standing. This initiative would require statements around adhering to the liberal epistemology in science, resisting moves to give equivalence in science studies to indigenous or minority “ways of knowing”, and removing unnecessary restrictions to teaching and research, thus ensuring international connectedness in research, and respect for multiple viewpoints while holding to a politically neutral position on all subjects.


New Zealand must not aspire to being an inward-looking Pacific ethnostate, a direction that seems to have been fostered by the present Government. It is vital that, for their future international credibility, our universities, on a viable financial footing, return to being completely apolitical and resist the changes that are being wrought by social justice activism. University decisions and actions in relation to teaching, research and outreach should be based on merit and not on identity.

Yes, these are all good, and, if implemented, would kick New Zealand back up into academic parity with other economically comparable countries.

But if you know New Zealand and its government (the new PM, Chris Hipkins, is the former Minister of Education who promoted the ‘social justice’ attitude and its concomitant effect on academic quality), you’ll know that these suggestions are, as Mencken would say, “bawling up a drainspout.” There is no chance, given the suppression of dissent about these issues, to even discuss them.

As I always say, I call attention to this because I love New Zealand and its people, but deplore what they’re doing to themselves. Further, this decline is an object lesson for the U.S., as ideology is increasingly creeping into our academics, now seen as a branch of Social Justice activism. “It can’t happen to us,” you say? I’m not so sure.

I’m sad to say this, but I don’t think the academic problems of New Zealand will be fixed.  They are circling the drain, but the politicians and academics don’t seem to care (except for those who dare not speak of the problem).

19 thoughts on “Academics in New Zealand going down the tubes

  1. The origin if the pedagogy needs to be pinpointed.

    Since the existing pedagogy excels at producing political activism and “political literacy” – in place of genuine literacy, the most likely origin of the existing pedagogy is that of Paulo Freire described in :

    Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968 in Portuguese)
    The Politics of Education (1985)

  2. When I was a kid in the UK, missing school required a note from a parent. Illness, or family holiday would be allowed. Yesterday I heard about a child (unnamed, no identifying information for the privacy freaks) from my child psychiatrist wife, who had missed 17 of the last 21 school days, simply because his father had told him he did not need to go. This was, unsurprisingly, part of the father’s war against the child’s mother. Curiously, the lad loses weight when living with the father and stepmother, and losing weight in a growing child is enormously significant, then gains it, and more, back when with his mother. My point is not that the father needs to be slapped around rather hard (which might be true), but that a school truancy officer of the kind that policed attendance in my youth, might be a better spend of municipal dollars than all the diversity consultants hoovering up every dollar they see.

      1. True, but I’m talking about a kid should be gaining weight as he grows. He isn’t just failing to gain as expected, not staying the same, but losing in absolute terms. And no, not overweight. This is a massive red flag to anyone in pædiatrics.

        1. Yes, I couldn’t agree more, even going to a lower percentile, without losing actual weight, already is a red flag. But losing actual weight (unless targeted in overweight and obese children) is about the brightest scarlet flag you can find.
          Telling your child (s)he doesn’t need to go to school is pretty crimson too.

          1. Funny you mention ‘crimson’, for that is the name of a private edu-consulting company formed for ambitious NZ high school students to facilitate entry into prestigious overseas universities, taking advantage of perceived local educational doldrums.

            Overseas readers may note this edu-consultancy has a Maori-verbiage-free website. Note how the pictures/video clips of students feature plenty of asian faces, and no obvious ‘maori faces immersed in maori culture’ that is the hallmark of Keyaurastan Government websites. At least 8, and possibly 10 of the site’s ‘Top 10 NZ high schools’ have Asian student bodies at greater than the national percentage of Asians ( 16% ). ( NZ’s 4th top high school in this list, Pinehurst, actually teaches classical Chinese poetry as an option, and downplays matauranga everything.)

            Statistics do exist, but are hard to access, that show Maori and Pacific achievements in education, comparing these cohorts to White and Asian. It appears that by and large, the White and Asian educational rates do not fare too badly compared to equivalent White and Asian Australian school performance. It is the Maori and Pacific performance that is responsible for most, but not all, of the decline in educational aptitude. Though Maori are now 17% of the population, and Pacific Island are 11%, the average age of the Maori and Pacific populations is around 25-26 years, whereas the White and Asian average age is around 35-38. This means that the actual school cohort of Maori and PI is greater than their population percentages, and is increasing each year. This presumably drives much of the decline. The increase in ‘maori cultural pride’ over the past 20 years is positively correlated, statistically, with maori educational stagnation.

            Ramesh 49% Indian, 49% Chinese, 2% Denisovan.

  3. The sanctification of assorted ” indigenous” stone-age traditions is just one wing of our new Lysenkoism. Overall, it consists of the injection of “social justice” mantras into every subject—biology, mathematics, astronomy, music theory, dentistry, what-have-you. But of course: this is precisely the guise in which the old Lysenkoism was injected into biology by its loudest proponents. For example: “Weismannist (Mendelist-Morganist) genetics is a spawn of bourgeois society, which finds the recognition of the theory of development unprofitable because from it, in connection with social phenomena, stems the inevitability of the collapse of the bourgeoisie.” [One of many examples quoted by Zhores Medvedev.}

    Our new Lysenkoism seems to have achieved so much influence through its capture of a lot of territory in the Schools of Ed. From those bastions, it is bringing to all forms of empirical knowledge the same outcome that “whole language” reading instruction brought to literacy. Perhaps there is no need to worry that New Zealand is becoming “less able to compete with similar countries for educational status and achievement”, inasmuch as the similar countries, at least in the Anglosphere, are undergoing similar operations.

    1. “… the injection of “social justice” mantras into every subject …”

      This would be the “generative themes” approach of Freire – introduce academic material in a political context to make it relevant to lived experience (Freire might use that term) – that is, get students to connect on an emotional level.

      The result of this – reported in a 2007 study of Friere’s pedagogy applied in Nigeria peasant areas – I’d have to look up the reference – was the subjects were made into “emotional wrecks” and it inhibited the academic literacy step.

      The political literacy was excellent though.

      1. Reference :

        About the word “peasant”:

        A hasty choice on my part, would have edited. It is not in the above study. However, Freire uses “peasant” in his 1968 book, and I was confused.

        Another note : I have been trying to spell Freire correctly for a while and still cannot, I had to check on the book just now.

  4. If the decline began 25 years ago, something mmore than woke pedagogy must be at play. In this regard, it’s not clear to me if the decline in achievement is confined to the Maori population or applies across the board.

    1. David, your point does not follow since there are predecessor ideologies of wokism. Wokism is an amalgam of things that have been around for longer than 25 years. For instance, postmodernism, the idea that there is no truth, that it is all about power, etc. This goes back, among other people, to Michel Foucault (1926-1984).

      1. Agreed: nothing about modern Wokeness that I hadn’t already seen back in the 80’s in college. I even recall hearing the claim that sex differences were entirely the result of diet and socialization. Couldn’t possibly have imagined that such beliefs would metastasize to all of society.

      1. You are right, it is across the board. The decline has its origins in policy decisions made by the NZ Government in the late 1990s to revamp secondary school national education assessment. The previous quite rigorous assessments that largely consisted of external annual national examinations in each subject (School Certificate for 16 year olds, Sixth Form Certificate for 17 year olds, and Bursary and Scholarship examinations for 18 year olds / final school year) were to be replaced with new module-based assessments with very heavy internal assessment components (National Certificate of Educational Achievement, NCEA), on the basis that too many kids left school without any qualifications (and went and entered trades, a perfectly legitimate and respectable thing to do.) This was implemented in the early 2000s. The effect of course, rather than lifting educational attainment by lower achievers, has been to lower the assessment bar considerably and reduce educational achievement across the board. Many of the better schools have for years actively encouraged their brighter students to undertake a different assessment – Cambridge or IB – and not NCEA.

        Of course the ideological underpinnings of the policy changes have their routes earlier, which come from the long march through the academic institutions of critical theory, constructivism and postmodernism. NZ social science academia has been awash with this since the 1980s and 1990s.

  5. You would think that government agencies and politicians would care about the loss of international standing. Good that the authors pointed to this explicitly. And brave of them to speak up at all!

    1. Makes me think of Nevil Shute’s novel, On the Beach. Everyone in Australia knows they are doomed as the radiation cloud slowly drifts south. They all just sit back to enjoy their last, future-less days, racing their cars with the last gallons of husbanded petrol and screwing their brains out, piles of suicide tablets left thoughtfully for the taking on the floors of abandoned drug stores.

  6. And we’ve been going on a brain drain for many years as well. So, we’re not just loosing what we have, but neither are we training new replacements.

  7. Hey look at this — the NZ Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF) is a major mechanism for determining research funding. Much like the British system, each department puts up their academics, who submit their publications etc., and the researchers and departments get grades, and “open” research funding (i.e. not competitive grants) is allotted on that basis. An “A” is worth a certain amount, a “B” less, etc.

    Check out the co-chairs of the subject panels:

    It looks like the chairing of each panel for the upcoming 2026 round is mandated to have a 50-50 split based on, literally, race. I.e. one Maori co-chair and one non-Maori co-chair.

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