Uni governance and wānanga changes

An attack on democracy and academic freedom?

University Councils throughout the country will undergo major reforms following the Government’s announcement that it plans to reduce their size and remove mandatory staff, student and community membership. Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce made the announcement last week, which has since been condemned as an “attack on democracy and on academic freedom.”

As the latest in a series of incremental reforms targeting tertiary education, the changes come as part of an Education Amendment Bill, which will soon be introduced to Parliament. The Bill will introduce a number of changes to university and wānanga councils, including reducing the size of councils from between 12 and 20 members to between 8 and 12 members. This would involve removing specific representative requirements to make council membership “more flexible,” and would require the Minister and councils to appoint members with relevant knowledge, skills or experience.

Tertiary Education Union (TEU) President Lesley Francey condemned the governance overhaul and said the proposals are unjustified and are “an attack on democracy and on academic freedom.”

“[The Minister] is wresting control of universities and wānanga into the hands of his own ministerial appointees and of business supporters.”

Francey said the Minister had acknowledged himself that New Zealand’s universities and wānanga are “already financially stable and perform well internationally,” and she saw it as a way to silence local community voices that “do not support the minister’s own economic vision.”

While the reforms could be seen to provide a less prescriptive model of membership on councils, Labour’s tertiary education spokesman Grant Roberston said the changes were “simply about silencing the voice of students and staff who have been vocal critics of National’s cuts to tertiary education.”

Of major concern is the future of a student voice on councils if student membership is no longer mandatory. OUSA President Ruby Sycamore-Smith said that “student voices on University Councils are a right, not a privilege,” and that it was a “cop out” that student representation on councils may be at the discretion of a university. “That a positive choice has to be made to include students demonstrates that university management and the ministers’ appointees hold more power than ever. Power is much better distributed to those most affected by the institution.”

The reforms reflect the needs of a rapidly changing employment market and adapt to changing technology in teaching and learning. “The governance reforms will support universities and wānanga in their drive to be more responsive to the needs of their students,” said Joyce.
This article first appeared in Issue 1, 2014.
Posted 6:57pm Sunday 23rd February 2014 by Claudia Herron.