The minister for tertiary education, Stephen Joyce, may think he’s above the law but we don’t.
He has told the New Zealand Herald “he would step in to force change at Auckland University” if necessary. What change does he want to force? He wants to determine what the university teaches.
This threat shows the minister has little regard for New Zealand’s Education Act in which it is declared that the intention of Parliament in enacting the provisions of this Act is “that academic freedom and the autonomy of institutions are to be preserved and enhanced.”
By saying he will “be more directive” with the University of Auckland with regard to the subjects they teach, the Minister is trampling over this institutional autonomy and over academic freedom. This is major attack on democracy.
Universities and other tertiary education providers have institutional autonomy in order to ensure that these institutions are able to critique governments, politicians, and Ministers, as well as others who hold power in New Zealand. Without institutional autonomy, and with threats such as the Minister has made that “I’m watching them [the University of Auckland] really closely”, our universities will become puppets of the state.
This is not in the best interests of the public, the economy, or our students. To meet the diverse needs of all New Zealanders and our complex society, education decisions rightly belong with the students, communities, and staff for whom our public universities were set up.
TEU rarely finds itself on the side of vice-chancellors these days, but in this case we back University of Auckland vice-chancellor Stuart McCutcheon, who is clearly stating that teaching decisions should be made by the university not the minister.
It is difficult to get a balance between autonomy and control in the tertiary education sector. It is naïve to think the state would bankroll the sector without attention to how money is spent, but there must be a balance between control and freedom (Hedley 2010: 132). We believe that the harm the government is causing in tertiary education now is evidence that the balance has shifted too far towards heavy-handed government steering.
The government’s heavy-handed steering of the tertiary education sector – no matter how often shrouded in myths about meeting the needs of students and employers – is stifling academic freedom (Codd 2001: 17); limited the choices of students and communities; and narrowly focused research on ‘business’ while in turn devaluing the democratic role of our universities.
Heavy-handed steering has a negative impact on the autonomy so crucial to a flourishing tertiary education sector. The government is creating processes to determine strategic direction at the expense of ensuring that the sector has the freedom to teach and research, unhampered by whatever political ideology has currency (OECD 2008: 42).
And in fact other politicians know that the sector requires a light hand. Steve Maharey (the Education Minister responsible for introducing ‘steering’ through TEC and now vice-chancellor of Massey University) noted “What the government is looking for from TEC is firm but unobtrusive steerage of the whole system towards relevance, excellence, access, capability, and collaboration” (in Mahoney 2003: 15). And in 2006 then shadow minister for education Bill English stated: “Tertiary institutions should advocate for a much-simplified system with less central bureaucratic discretion, certain sanctions, and greater institutional autonomy. They should be demanding that central government stick to quality monitoring and funding limits until it can demonstrate that its own strategic processes can in fact add value to the institutions.”
So Minister Joyce must take a step back from his current approach to tertiary education institutions. He must uphold the intent of the Education Act, defend democracy, and let universities respond to his broad directives in the way they see most fit. If he allows institutional autonomy and academic freedom to flourish he will be doing the best for students, communities, the economy, and the university staff whom work exceptionally hard to protect and promote quality public tertiary education.
TEU national president