The ChangesFor those of you who don’t frequent the Parliament website (home of Parliament TV screenings and handy-dandy MP lists), you should know there exists a Bills Digests feature, which explains quite extensively the background and provisions to different bills. As it aims to be largely objective, this is a good place to extract a neutral summary of the Education Amendment Bill (number two).
There are four main changes that are outlined. Of these, the most explicit change is that university and wānanga councils will be decreased in size, from 12-20 members to 8-12; a second change is that this numbers game will include three or four appointed ministers, meaning roughly a third of the councils will be hand picked by the Government. They must have “governance capability.” It also includes the provision that at least one member must be Māori. The rest of the members should have relevant knowledge or skills (Critic has to ask: who were you appointing who didn’t have relevant knowledge or skills to necessitate that qualifying statement?) and should accurately reflect New Zealand’s general demographic composition.
Third – and this is especially important for students – is the removal of the provision that council members must include student representatives. Essentially, this means there do not need to be any students on the university councils to legitimise them; they can operate exclusive of actual student membership.
Finally, the Bill will “clarify the duties and accountabilities of individual council members.” Which, if you have a hunt through the actual text, can be boiled down to “don’t be a dick or you’ll be booted.”
The Good NewsThe point of making such changes is to streamline our council system. By reducing the amount of bureaucratic nonsense ascribed to university councils, Joyce argues that new university councils will be flexible. This freedom of choice will boost our international standings, create competitive and effective councils, and will further enhance Māori student participation. In recognition of the lack of student membership, Joyce points to long track records of student involvement, and doubts that this will change significantly upon the Bill making it into law.
When the initial announcement of the Bill was made, Joyce succinctly described the benefits by commenting, “New Zealand universities would benefit from smaller, more flexible councils which support them to perform at a high level and to be nimbler, more adaptable, and better organised than big overseas universities. The proposed governance changes will, alongside measures proposed in the new Tertiary Education Strategy, assist in preparing universities for the challenges of the next 20-30 years.” The aim, therefore, is fluidity and elasticity of council membership.
The Bad NewsIf you read Issue Three, you will remember David Clark’s snappy one-liner telling us that Joyce is taking away the student voice. That is the essence of the main criticism surrounding the changes. Without compulsory student representation, it would be very easy to do away with students on councils at all. In reflecting institutions that comprise of, well, students, this is a dangerous potential oversight.
More than that, however, is what it means the councils will actually look like. In particular, the new provisions mean a third of every university council will be government-appointed, increasing dramatically the role Parliament has in influencing our universities. Having councils independent of government is an important notion, as endangering that separation endangers academic freedom and the like. It’s impossible to banish the images of Umbridge’s Hogwarts takeover in the fifth Harry Potter book (the educational decrees, the firing of beloved teachers, the banning of clubs without express permission to form, etc.) With that terrifying image in mind, it’s not hard to explain the staunch opposition this bill has got from student associations. Indeed, ignoring their protests would be an uncomfortable indication of things to come – if the changes are opposed but ignored, surely this will be indicative of a future where students are routinely ignored on other issues, too.
Even in a fundamental democratic sense, this bill has issues. Representative democracy is intended to be just that – representative. Removing this clause in council composition does little to defeat the argument that National is “attacking democracy.” David Clendon argues, “Staff, student and community representatives are vital to these councils making sound decisions, as they represent the exact groups that universities and wānanga exist for.” Without members who understand the hums and ticks of university life, it’s easy to see that decisions could be full of oversight and detrimental to the exact people the council is supposed to aid.