New Zealand academics decry the decline of their country’s universities

November 21, 2023 • 11:15 am

This article, published from Wellington in The Post (formerly The Dominion Post), has two names on the masthead but a ton of other academics at well known universities signing on to the sentiments. The sentiments are that Kiwi universities have slipped in the world’s academic rankings for a number of reasons. The authors (and signers) then offer list of 13 fixes designed to restore university quality. I don’t know if the new government will enact them, but they should certainly listen. 

The authors:

Distinguished Professor Peter Schwerdtfeger is the head of the Institute for Advanced Study and director of the Centre for Theoretical Chemistry and Physics (CTCP) at Massey University Auckland. John Raine is Emeritus Professor of Engineering at Auckland University of Technology. This article is co-authored or endorsed by multiple other academics, as listed at the end.

The thesis:

OPINION: New Zealand has long aimed to provide a world-class tertiary education system that compared well with other countries that have strong education systems.

However, over the last decade universities have become progressively inward- rather than outward-focused. Long-term underfunding, aggravated by a large and increasingly stifling bureaucracy, have made it very hard for academics to achieve excellence in both teaching and research.

Consequently, New Zealand universities are declining in international rankings. The following (perhaps incomplete) list of actions addresses shortfalls in our university system, where we request urgent action from the incoming Government.

And the suggestions, which is mostly a list, though I’ve included some of the explanations (all material from the article is indented. Bolding is from the authors. My own comments are flush left

1: Strong Government and university internal policies must be developed and enforced to protect academic freedom and freedom of expression.
Such policies also need to prevent racial slurs and attacks. Many academics are reluctant to challenge political activism on campus for fear of personal and professional marginalisation.
Freedom of speech (including the freedom to dissent) needs to be better enshrined within our universities.

2: A baseline review of the Government funding model for New Zealand universities is well overdue. Government funding per equivalent full-time student (EFTS) has been substantially lower than the OECD average over the past 20 years or more (for example, 60% of Australian funding levels), and this funding is slanted more towards student support than direct institutional funding by comparison with others; for example, Australia.

3: Universities should preferably use a funding model that is not solely based on full-time equivalent student numbers.

4: The non-academic to academic staff ratio, which is at 1.5, should be reduced to an acceptable level (<1.0).

Good lord! I don’t know whether a 1.5 ratio is normal in the U.S., but this sounds like too much administration.

5: Academics should have more input into decision-making through senates and academic boards. Both should have the power to challenge or, in some cases, veto decisions handed down by senior administrative staff, even to the extent of filing a no-confidence vote.

This next one is something a group of us have published about: the need to judge science by merit alone rather than ethnicity or ideology. But that applies to all areas of academics, and is instantiated in the University of Chicago by our Shils Report, which lays out the criteria for academic appointments. I’m not sure whether this takes into account the “affirmative action” that the entire country practices with respect to the indigenous people, the Māori:

6: Universities must be driven by a continuous search for excellence and a merit-based system of recruitment, selection and promotion for staff and students, and not by ideological, political or racial motives. A review of all university administrative policies needs to be conducted, including such issues as the balance between equal opportunity and non-merit based enrolment preferences.

7: We should create programmes to support disadvantaged students in terms of paying for their study fees through stipends if they fulfil certain criteria of excellence.

Another proposal to base achievement on merit:

8: The Performance Based Research Fund (PBRF) has moved away from assessing research excellence and is increasingly aligned with social and political issues. The PBRF has reached a stage of diminishing returns due to the high implementation cost of the quality evaluation (in excess of $60 million) every six years. The PBRF should be superseded by a less-financially-costly system to assign funding based on internationally benchmarked research excellence.

9: Academic staff today are highly vulnerable as employees and need to be better protected at our universities. Core areas of strength in the sciences, engineering, law, commerce and humanities must be retained and protected, together with certain niche areas at some universities. It is absolutely unacceptable that, for example, areas of international research strength in the sciences are to be cut under current academic staff reductions plans. . .

Below: the NCEA is the National Certificate of Educational Achievement, New Zealand’s certification and ranking of student secondary-school achievement. There are three levels, and to go to college you not only have to pass level 3, but get a good enough score, which will also determine where you get to go to college. They’re also used when applying for jobs or trying to get into overseas schools.

10: Very poor NCEA results, along with the decade-long decline in other international benchmarks of student achievement, such as PISA and TIMSS, have led to a situation where there are fewer and fewer students every year able to study successfully in STEM subjects at university.

11: Addressing shortages of graduates in specific professions requires many more students to leave secondary school with mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology at NCEA Level 3.

Below: according to Wikipedia, the TEC is “The Tertiary Education Commission. . . . responsible for administering the funding of tertiary education, primarily through negotiated investment plans with each funded organisation.  I’ll leave it to the Kiwis to explain this one:

12: A zero-based review of the TEC is required, with a potential reduction in the compliance requirements that it imposes on universities. This should include stopping the penalising of low-pass rate courses through the removal of related student- achievement component (SAC) EFTS funding, an issue that has substantially arisen because of declining school leaver academic standards.

and. . .

13: A complete reboot of the Department of Immigration is urgently needed, with an absolute requirement that response times for international student visa approvals come down to a few days rather than a few months.

The summary:

We believe that our universities are currently at high risk of becoming mediocre inward-looking institutions. Academic staff are frustrated to the extent that many want or are about to leave New Zealand. We believe that New Zealand deserves better.

We ask the Government to review the current status of our university system and its funding model, and to address our list of actions.

I predicted that NZ academics would start leaving as the achievement of students, which depends in large part on government programs, keeps dropping. It appears particularly severe in the STEM fields (perhaps because I’m sensitive to them), but both math and reading achievement are seriously endangered in New Zealand.

Here’s the panoply of academics who signed the letter. Several of them were among the seven faculty (two now deceased) who signed the controversial 2021 Listener Letter, “In Defense of Science” decrying “other ways of knowing” being taught as coequal to science in Kiwi science classes.

This article is co-written and/or endorsed by the following academics who deeply care about the New Zealand tertiary education system. In alphabetical order: Emeritus Prof Rex Ahdar (Otago University), Prof Joachim Brand (Massey University), Prof Dianne Brunton (Massey University), Prof Ananish Chaudhuri (Auckland University), Prof Kendall Clements (Auckland University), Prof Garth Cooper (Auckland University), Prof Douglas Elliffe (Auckland University), Emeritus Curator Dr Brian Gill (Auckland Museum), Prof Russell Gray (Auckland University, MPI Leipzig), Prof Natasha Hamilton-Hart (Auckland University ), Emeritus Prof Geoff Jameson ( Massey University ), Prof Sebastian Leuzinger (Auckland University of Technology), Dr David Lillis (Wellington), Dr Brenda Lobb (Auckland), Prof Peter Lockhart (Massey University), Distinguished Prof Gaven Martin (Massey University ), Prof Anthony Poole ( Auckland University ), Emeritus Prof John Raine (AUT), Prof Elizabeth Rata (Auckland University ), Professor Mark Richards (Otago University), Emeritus Prof Mick Roberts (Massey University ), Distinguished Prof Peter Schwerdtfeger (Massey University ), Prof Jeffery Tallon ( Victoria University), Dr Joyce Lady Waters (Massey University ), Prof W Lindsey White (Auckland University of Technology), Prof Georg Zellmer (Massey University).

23 thoughts on “New Zealand academics decry the decline of their country’s universities

  1. It’s a credible list of academics from Keyaurastan New Zealand. Apart from the Listener 7 authors, those on the list of whom I know a little, align more with the libertarian mould, and definitely veer away from the social justice world of Crackpotistan. For instance, Ananish Chaudhuri is a research economist at U Auckland, who has given talks for the rallies of the libertarian ACT political party [ as did Elizabeth Rata, a member of the Listener writers ].

    Natasha Hamilton-Hart is in the business school at U Auckland, long time head of a university-government research group on Asian economies, researches the SE Asian and Chinese economies. She once gave a talk which featured flow charts that compared the organisation of NZ and Taiwan’s ministries, along with quasi-independent research groups, and where / how each group reported to the arms of government. What was immediately striking was the sheer level of obvious chain of command and logical organisation of Taiwan’s bureaucracy, compared to an amount of vagueness / ad hoc nature in NZ. For instance, she pointed out that Callaghan Innovation, which deals with science, does not have a clear chain of reporting with any branch of government, which means that no Cabinet Minister is clearly responsible for receiving its recommendations.

    Also of note is who is NOT a signatory, namely, none of the notorious social justice crackpots, eg not Sean Hendy or Siouxsie Wiles who led the trial by petition against the Listener academics. Also absent are the co-leaders of the Royal Society, and the notorious head of the Otago U-based Institute for Peace Studies — a Maori woman well known for attacking academics and others on Twitter with unsavoury adjectives and adverbs. Rather ironic for a leader of a ‘Peace studies’ group.

    1. Thanks for some of this detailed information, Ramesh. I was struck by the number of
      signatories from Massey University. Does that have any particular significance?

      1. Hi John,
        Yes, Massey University is in the process of cutting a huge number of academic staff from the College of Sciences and from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. There is only some information available on the web — much has been kept out of the NZ press — but this link gives a fairly up-to-date account:

        There is pretty general agreement in NZ that Massey’s Vice-Chancellor is incompetent.

  2. At least one source I checked says that the average non-academic staff to faculty ratio at public colleges and universities in the U.S. is 2.7 to 1.

  3. “The Ministry of Education needs far greater focus on educating our young people, and far less on social engineering.”
    yeah “social engineering” is NOT a STEM subject.
    Now that “Chippie” the Labour leader and his mother (poss. a bit cruel ) have gone (for now) we might have a chance of getting somewhere, preferably merit based with an emphasis on free speech, heterodoxy.

  4. Some of these proposals could be very difficult to achieve.

    NZ’s economy has been in slow decline relative to the developed world for many decades. Once we were comparable to our neighbour, Australia, but now our per capita GDP is 25% lower, so there are limits to what can be funded.

    Universities can’t solve the poor performance of our schools, and our powerful educational bureaucracy is in the grip of polical (biculturalism)and educational ideologies (whole language reading) which permit little dissent but whose benefits are quite doubtful, and seems to have swallowed whole the current decolonising narrative.

    Here are the new criteria for eligibility to appointment as principal of a primary or secondary school.

    When you taught 30 – 40 years ago at schools where up to two-thirds of the student body were neither Māori nor European, but the principal’s eligibility criteria include ‘prioritising biculturalism through resourcing and funding’, where equitable outcomes but not excellence at an international level are mentioned, where principals are expected to be ‘anti-racist ’ – what specifically does that mean – to understand ‘the impact of colonisation on education in Aotearoa’, incorporate matauranga Maori… you know that this is a specific, ideological programme to exclude wrong-think from any educational influence.

    1. I wonder if the decline in reading facility amongst NZ schoolchildren can credited to the prevalence of :”whole language” reading instruction. Interesting if this faddish doctrine, largely obsolete in the rest of the Anglosphere, holds sway in Aotearoa. There seems to be a psychic link between this doctrine and the newer decolonialization fad, due perhaps to the fact that the efficacy of both practices can be appreciated only through an Other Way of Knowing.

  5. “Good lord! I don’t know whether a 1.5 ratio is normal in the U.S., but this sounds like too much administration.”

    Sorry to report that this is now common. My Canadian university has ~1000 faculty members and ~700 non-academic staff in academic departments (providing direct support for teaching and research), plus ~1700 nonacademic staff in central administration. So that’s ~2.5:1 staff:faculty overall, and >1.5:1 if one counts only central admin.

    This has worsened recently. Since 2009 our undergraduate enrolment has increased by ~25% but the university has created only 29 new tenure-track faculty positions (+3%). Over the same 14 years we created >500 new non-academic staff positions (including >100 since September 2022, many of those to support the university’s growing indigenization and anti-racism enterprise). Most of these new staff are middle managers (policy, finance, knowledge mobilization, engagement, IT, external relations, labour relations, fund-raising), and not directly providing service to students or faculty members. Most of those folks would have been on Ark Fleet Ship B.

    There is no reason to believe my university is exceptional in any of those ways (e.g., we haven’t hired dozens of staff and spent millions of taxpayer dollars to change our name to “Vancouver Metropolitan University”).

    1. My alma mater, The College of William and Mary’s (founded 1693) Board of Visitors voted last week to break off four of the College of Arts & Science department into a new school with a focus of data fluency. The departments are computer science, data science, applied science, and physics. Perhaps it is best (I have not looked at the recommending report), but I have a hard time with accepting yet another dean, deputy dean, associate dean, assistant dean(s), and associated executive assistants and liaisons, none of whom teach or do a lick of research to be supported by research grant overhead and tuition. Aaaargh! You kids get off my lawn.

      1. Yes and it’s not just the new organizations that lead to this bloat. This is my stodgy old Faculty of Science administrative staff list: the dean herself, 5 associate deans (!) seconded to the dean’s office for mostly administrative roles, plus 32 nonacademic staff, for a faculty with 8 departments and ~250 faculty members.

        One wonders why a Faculty of Science has a director of marketing & comms, an associate director, an acting associate director, and a comms officer? Like the rest of the university ~95% of the Faculty budget is salary and benefits, so why does the dean’s office need a senior director of planning, a manager of budget & financial analysis, and a business analyst?

        I apologize to our host that the full list violates the length limit on comments 🙁

        Dean of Science
        Associate Dean, Academic
        Associate Dean, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion
        Associate Dean, Learning
        Associate Dean, Research
        Associate Dean, Graduate Studies
        Special Advisor to Dean of Science
        Director, Academic Affairs
        Senior Advisor, Academic Affairs
        Director, Advancement
        Advancement Officer, Leadership Giving
        Director, Marketing & Communications
        Associate Director, Marketing & Communications
        Acting Associate Director, Marketing & Communications
        Communications Officer
        Director, Facilities and Technical Operations
        Acting Associate Director, Safety and Projects
        Associate Director, Information Technology and Systems
        Associate Director, Facilities & Technical Operations
        Sr. Director, Faculty Operations & Planning
        Manager, Budget & Financial Analysis
        Business Analyst
        Appointment Secretary
        Financial Assistant
        Research Financial Assistant
        Administration and Communication Assistant
        Strategic Partnership Manager
        Manager, Outreach & Engagement
        Research Grants Facilitator
        Associate Research Grants Facilitator
        Director, Strategic Enrollment Management
        Student Recruiter
        Student Engagement Coordinator
        Associate Academic Advisor
        Student Success Coordinator
        Secretary, [playroom for undergraduate students]
        Secretary, [off-campus office in another suburb]
        Associate Academic Advisor

          1. I have to admit some sympathy for some of the senior admins who oversee this bloat. The university president’s office and our provincial and federal bureaucracies download enormous regulatory and oversight and reporting burdens onto the faculties and departments. The growth in senior directors, special advisors, and associate deans is an understandable (if absurd) consequence of the need to fulfill those mandates.

    2. Much like the 40% increase in Federal public service employees since the Liberal Party of Canada took power in 2015 with a commensurate decline in efficiency but an increase in salaries and waiting times.
      Oh, I also forgot the massive input of Trudeau SJ Ideology and unsustainable immigration.

  6. James Kierstead (Wellington) and Michael Johnson published a report this year (2023) on academic:: non-academic staff ratios. It puts NZ universities in context with other countries (where data was available). It is called “Blessing or Bloat: Non-academic staffing in New Zealand universities in comparative perspective”. You can download it here:›assets›DMSDocuments›EMBARGOED_BlessingOrBloat.pdf
    One of the more interesting (for me) observations Kierstead makes is that because the manual labour done at universities (gardeners, cleaners, security) is increasingly outsourced at (NZ) universities, what these numbers don’t show so easily is the very steep increase in white-collar administrators over time. The ratio of academic:non-academic admin staff has changed more than these numbers show.

  7. The academic vs non-academic staff figures come from this report, which also has some figures for other English-speaking countries:

    Sadly the Post article is likely to be ignored or dismissed with contempt by the usual suspects here – the presence of some of the Listener 7 amongst the signers is enough to guarantee that. There are probably also personal grudges within the inbred academic community here – for example Richar Easther, the Professor of Physics at Auckland, is not going to sign anything co-written by John Raine after this:

    As well as the people Ramesh mentioned, Prof Gaven Martin is one of NZ’s most eminent mathematicians (an interesting profile from a few years ago here: and Anthony Poole has written some interesting articles here:

  8. It is a pleasure to hear from Mike, whose academic abode, my own neighbor to the north,
    is “the unceded Coast Salish territory, represented today by the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations”, also known as Vancouver. His institution’s impressive roster of
    administration officials is even more majestic than we enjoy in Seattle, but we are doing what we can. At just the UW’s School of Medicine, we enjoy an Office of Faculty Affairs with: a Vice Dean, an Associate Dean (for “Well Being”), two Assistant Deans, two Program Managers, and an Executive Assistant. One interesting feature of this Office is that its
    female:male ratio is 7:0. But there has been no inquiry as yet into those questions of gender representation and disparate impact that are deemed so urgent in other arenas.

  9. Hopefully once our new triumvirate government is finally sorted down here in NZ they’ll be on to fixing this. Ain’t holding my breath though.

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