Some Counsel on University Councils

The TEU says that the Government is shortly to introduce legislation to alter the make-up of University Councils, and this has recently been confirmed by Minister for Tertiary Education, Steven Joyce. Why is this a problem, you may ask?

The answer gets right to the heart of the role that Universities play in New Zealand society. The word academia conjures up many images in people’s minds, but something that it is commonly recognised to have is independence. A freedom to criticise, lament, praise and construct is a defining feature of higher learning and research and is something that Universities, particularly in Western countries, have fiercely defended throughout history.

Of course, academic freedom can be a pesky beast for governments. The rigours of peer review create hardened debaters out of our academics: sloppy political arguments or poorly-defended legislation is unlikely to make it through the discerning gaze of New Zealand’s A-rated researchers. This makes it even more important that academic freedom is protected and respected. Debate and exchanges of reasonable ideas is the core function of democracy. It’s simply not possible for our politics to mediate ideas if there aren’t any informed views around to argue about.

Given the fact that Universities, particularly in a smaller society like ours, are pillars of democracy and function in many ways as a ‘critic and conscience of society’, it seems logical therefore that society ought to have a say in how they are governed. The students, alumni, staff, management, community and government currently have a Council system in place that balances all of these stakeholders against each other so that they can govern in the public interest. Direct democratic accountability of stakeholder reps on Councils means that they are beholden to no interests but those of those they represent and the institution that they govern. All is not perfect with this but at the very least it serves the intrinsic value in the democratic and academic nature of our Universities.

This is what is so galling about Steven Joyce’s known intention to give us “smaller councils with appointments made on the basis of skills and experience”. The government already (regrettably) has institutions that are designed to be lean, efficient research cash-cows: these are the Crown Research Institutes. To pretend that business-savvy ministeral appointees will do a better job of running our Universities is to deny their very purpose.

Such a setup would be anti-democratic, denying the unique and special relationships that Universities have with their staff and students. What kind of anti-democratic institution can pretend that its job is to uphold the value of our democracy? Certainly not one that intends to be taken seriously any longer.

Steven Joyce’s plans, no doubt intended to increase the ‘value’ of our Universities in the eyes of future consumer-students will in fact have the opposite effect. We will lose the very essence of the democratic beauty that these institutions have.

To see anything less that a spirited and passionate resistance to these reforms from the academic and student communities would therefore be a travesty indeed.

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