Cross-Examination: The Education Amendment Bill And Implications for University Autonomy

Cross-Examination: The Education Amendment Bill And Implications for University Autonomy

Cross-Examination is a blog series about current legal issues in New Zealand produced by EJP Communications volunteers.

Jordan Margetts

EJP Communications volunteer Jordan Margetts had an opportunity to interview The University of Auckland Vice Chancellor, Professor Stuart McCutcheon, on the Education Amendment Bill (No. 6). The following is an analysis of the Bill and discusses our interview with the Chancellor.

Section 6: key points

This section provides for a maximum of 12 council members; four of whom are to be appointed by the Minister, and a Maori member (presumably, also appointed by the Minister).  Note that in their responsibilities members are accountable both to the council, and the Minister himself.

The Problem

On the face of it these are obscure changes to a governing body that very few students have anything to do with. However the Bill proposes three significant changes to the University:

  1. Increased arbitrary governmental control of the University
  2. Decreased diversity on the council
  3. Potential threat to academic freedoms

Decreasing the size of council to 12 members (maximum), yet keeping four (or five) of those members under the appointment of the Minister allows for a near majority control of council before the rest of the places are even filled.

In an interview with EJP, Professor Stuart McCutcheon (Vice-Chancellor of The University of Auckland) noted that at present the University Council has significant autonomy, and thus those members who are appointed by the Minister are professionals and experts from a range of industries. The Vice-Chancellor noted the concern that such experts are unlikely to be attracted to positions on council should the autonomy of their decisions be restricted by an over-active minister.

It’s fair to ask why exactly those involved with The University are so concerned about ministerial control, especially if the current ministerial appointments are fairly autonomous and efficient. But this is precisely the point. Both in interview and in his opinion piece in the Herald, the Vice-Chancellor has noted that Minister Steven Joyce has been unable to articulate a single criticism of the current model. In the Bill itself and in Hansard [the official record of the proceedings of the House], Joyce has claimed this is to “increase efficiency,” but again has been unable to cogently point out how exactly it is that the current system is inefficient. Conversely Professor McCutcheon has pointed to two ways in which this is clearly not only without evidence, but actually contrary to evidence: firstly, given their funding parameters, NZ universities are actually the most efficient in the world; and secondly a larger council allows for specialist subcommittees to be formed, which are able to deal with issues more specifically, then report back to council. This, McCutcheon believes, will be unlikely after the reform. It is therefore understandable why some feel that Joyce is imposing these changes against substantive advice from the industry. As such, the fair inference made by critics is that Joyce is merely seeking to extend his control over the governance of New Zealand universities. Grant Robertson in the House summed these thoughts up well:

“There is no evidence that lies behind these changes. There is no great call for the terrible governance of Universities that has driven them into the ground financially. It has not happened. New Zealand universities are generally performing very well. They are adapting very well to the so-called modern world that Steven Joyce talks about. There is no problem here. This policy is a solution in search of a problem. It is Steven Joyce’s ideological response to people who disagree with him.”

As Catherine Delahunty noted after the first reading, “an Education Amendment Bill is an opportunity to strengthen democracy in education, and, unfortunately, this bill fails to do that.” Why exactly will this failure occur? Well, the reason is simple. With only 12 members on council, five of whom are predetermined by the minister, only 7 possible members are left to cover all the various constituent groups who make up the university (defined as: students, academic staff, the Vice Chancellor, professional staff, and alumni). As such, Joyce himself appoints the single largest possible collection of members. This prima facie poses a threat to not only the diversity of the council, but also the democratic nature of the council, which should seek to populate itself with representatives from across the body of members of the university – all of whom will be represented less proportionately thanks to increased ministerial control.

Finally, again in interview, the Vice Chancellor repeated his most significant ideological concern: that the University’s role as “the critic and conscience of society” is liable to be significantly threatened by this increased ministerial control. McCutcheon gave two hypothetical examples. The first articulated the concern that should an academic publish a paper that critiques the current government, the minister by way of his appointees could exert pressure on the Vice-Chancellor to change or filter this critique. Secondly, the notion that should a government come into power which has some particularly radical views, they would too easily be able to influence the University to change its teaching syllabus (his particular example was a fundamentalist Christian government, who might influence against the teaching of evolution – McCutcheon noted that this is not entirely hypothetical, and pointed to some parts of US as examples). This threat may well not be on the immediate horizon, but the mere possibility is enough to provide a significant flaw in the Bill.

Apathy and Involvement

“This is a Government that wants to control everything.”- Chris Hipkins (MP)

Our student generation is one often defined by apathy. AUSA elections found only around 600 votes per position, in a university of 40,000. And unfortunately, this is yet another issue that seems it will float right by most students without a second thought. However I would urge protest – the Bill is a threat to the sanctity of New Zealand’s universities, which will almost certainly come under greater control by the minister.

I would argue that the problems identified above constitute enough of a threat to The University’s classical role (as an independent critical voice) that the student body should be speaking out against it. However, one might be convinced by Joyce’s efficiency claims (and if this is the case then so be it) but what is central here is that the student population engages with this issue, and doesn’t allow a potentially dangerous piece of legislation to get through the House unnoticed and minimally debated.

 

Note:

We contacted Minister for Tertiary Education Steven Joyce asking for an interview. After an acknowledgement email, no reply was given.

 

 

The views expressed in the posts and comments of this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the Equal Justice Project. They should be understood as the personal opinions of the author. No information on this blog will be understood as official. The Equal Justice Project makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this site or found by following any link on this site. The Equal Justice Project will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information nor for the availability of this information.

 

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