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.
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.
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.
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.
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).