Barbarians at the gate? Penny Fenwick

A Shakeup Anyway   Government and the Universities in New Zealand in a Decade of Reform
Ruth Butterworth and Nicholas Tarling
Auckland University Press, $34.95

Universities are amongst the most enduring of all social institutions ‑ a state of affairs which seems to provoke (amongst those who care one way or the other) either the response that such institutions are unfortunately amongst the last of the dinosaurs or alternatively that they are indeed essential to a post-modern society.

The first universities (in the socio‑cultural form that we know them) originated in eleventh-century Europe, serving the sons of the nobility and gentry. Even the harshest critics of today’s university system would acknowledge that universities have come some way since then. Butterworth and Tarling set out to document the most recent adaptations of New Zealand universities to their political environment.

In particular, universities seem to be institutions which provoke lifelong loyalty amongst some ‑ both staff and alumni. Some people thrive on a university environment and continue to demonstrate their allegiance for as long as the institution has a role for them. Universities are culturally distinct, enduring collectivities provoking warm feelings in their devotees and this in‑group behaviour is undoubtedly part of what leads to the charge of ivory tower remoteness.

In a period of rapid change, such as the decade which is the subject of Butterworth and Tarling’s review, it is tempting for these devotees to wallow in nostalgia and claim that “the reforms” killed all that was good about universities and allowed market forces to dominate institutions in which the free reign of such forces is anathema.

Yet universities are used to feeling under siege ‑ whether the criticism comes from the left for their supposedly too cosy relationship with military, industrial and commercial interests or from the right for their encouragement of radical ideas and lack of relevance to the problem of achieving economic growth. Indeed many closely associated with universities would argue that they are not fulfilling their role as “critic and conscience of society” unless they are under attack.

Universities are inevitably closely linked to the state through their dependence on state funding, as well as, paradoxically, by this “critic and conscience” role and by the role that their graduates play in broader society.

Despite some attempts to disassociate the universities (and Butterworth and Tarling hint at this), it is evident that the same institutions that nurtured the economic perspective dominant in the Treasury and the State Services Commission also nurtured the opposing critiques of Jonathon Boston, Paul Dalziel, Prue Hyman, Jane Kelsey and others.

What do those who are not devotees of universities think of them? Does the public generally support universities? Do university graduates? As Don Aitkin has noted (“The Man in the Middle”, pp181‑192 in Robyn Williams, The Uncertainty Principle Australian Scientists Talk About Our World, Our Past and Our Future, ABC Enterprises, 1991), a characteristic of the recent, related upheavals in Australian tertiary education was the absence of public expressions of support for the existing university system from graduates. There was, he reported, an almost total absence of letters that said:

Come on, fair go, I went to Bloggsville University and I was well taught by good people and I look back on those days with great affection. The people who defended the universities were academics. The people who were criticising them were very often university graduates.

Although universities have always had to negotiate their relationship with the state, the last two decades have been a particularly fascinating time in the negotiations between New Zealand universities and the New Zealand state.

It was inevitable that the economic transformation of New Zealand in the 1980s and 1990s would affect the universities. Persistent criticism from the Treasury and the State Services Commission alone of their inefficient use of plant and equipment, their lack of responsiveness to consumer need and general provider capture ensured that this would be the case.

New Zealand universities shared the changes which occurred during this period and the forces which influenced them with Australian and British universities. Those changes included:

—the move from élite to mass education with a rapid increase in student numbers and the proportion of the school leaver cohort going on to tertiary education,

—increased emphasis on quality assessment of university teaching and research;

—increased emphasis on a managerialist approach to running universities;

—increased private funding of tertiary education, primarily by students and their families.

While the form of the changes may have differed a little, as in the survival of the binary system in New Zealand and its demise in Australia, the forces have been the same. So, too, were the economic and philosophical perspectives which fanned the flames ‑ the twin forces of economic rationality and managerialism.

As a result of this increased scrutiny, the period from the late 1970s to the mid 1990s saw a plethora of reports on various aspects of tertiary education in New Zealand: the Watts report 1987; the Probine‑Fargher report 1987; the Hawke report 1988; Learning for Life One 1989 (February); Learning for Life Two 1989 (August); the tertiary review group’s report 1991; and, this year, since the publication of Butterworth and Tarling’s own review, the Todd taskforce report and A Single Harmonised Qualifications Framework – the report of the ministerial tertiary lead group.

Butterworth and Tarling’s stated purpose in writing A Shakeup Anyway was to cover  “the so‑called ‘reform process’ as it encompassed and made its impact on the universities”. It would be unrealistic to expect one volume comprehensively to analyse all of the territory covered by the reforms and by these reports. Understandably, the book begins modestly: “The authors offer a piece of history … a source book which may add to an understanding of the whole.”

Inevitably, given Tarling’s standing as an historian and Butterworth’s as a political scientist, the flavour is that of political history with all of the historian’s painstaking attention to detail and all of the political scientist’s close analysis of the workings of government ministers and officials. These twin perspectives are particularly welcome.

Many of the previous reviews of this chaotic period in the development of New Zealand universities have been from the perspectives of public administration, economics and sociology. As befits the interests of these disciplines, existing reviews have focused on the funding of tertiary education, its accessibility to social groups previously poorly served and relationships between tertiary institutions and the government.

Despite the reference in the subtitle of Butterworth and Tarling’s book to a “decade of reform”, its span is much broader than that and it offers a comprehensive review of a critical period in the history of New Zealand universities. As such, it is a useful scholarly companion document to other overviews, such as the February 1994 statement of position by the New Zealand University Students Association, Out of the past higher education our vision.

The Butterworth/Tarling work is in four parts:

—Part one sets the context, offering a brief history of the university, particularly the New Zealand university, through the years of the lesser‑known Reichel‑Tate Royal Commission on the University of New Zealand (1925), the Hughes Parry report (1960) which established the University Grants Committee and the better‑known Currie Commission (1962).

—Part two introduces the market libertarian philosophies and economic policies which increasingly came to dominate discussion of the future direction for tertiary education from the 1980s onwards and documents the universities’ response to these in the form of the Watts report.

—Part three focuses on the events of the late 1980s. Here one senses that the authors have finally come to what is really the target of their exposé ‑ the reviews of post-compulsory education and training, the Hawke report, the ensuing period of tertiary reforms encapsulated in Learning for Life, the threatened legal challenge by the universities to the Government’s proposed policy directions and legislation which led to the encapsulation in legislation of the concept of academic freedom and the demise of the University Grants Committee.

—Part four attempts a summary of the effects of these changes to the time of publication and hints at further hostilities to come, in the form of capital charging and changes to the composition of university councils (corporatisation of the universities?). As the authors conclude, the Education Amendment Act 1990 is but a “stage in a continuing struggle”.

It would be all too easy to be critical of this book. To focus, for instance, on its excessive attention to seemingly irrelevant minutiae. Does it add anything to the debate to know that Gary Hawke was prone on the floor with a bleeding nose when he spoke to Nicholas Tarling by phone in the final stages of preparing the Hawke report? What does it mean when we are told that Professor Watts “had dinner at Victoria University” while on a preparatory visit for his review?

Another readily apparent flaw is the authors’ rather undisciplined lapses into innuendo and name‑calling as in the reference to staff of the Ministry of Education as “life‑forms on Lambton Quay”.

In parts the chronology of events is difficult to follow as the book moves between episodes offering brief insights into material to be covered later in more depth, giving the narrative a somewhat repetitive and disjointed style.

It could also be pointed out that while the authors criticise others (particularly those who wrote the review reports) for their inaccessible language, their own book is liberally scattered with enough Latin phrases to send everyone but a classics scholar searching for a dictionary.

To focus on these defects, however, is to detract from the breadth of material and detailed collation of information which is Butterworth’s and Tarling’s achievement.

Butterworth and Tarling are unashamedly partisan, describing their approach as “participant observer”. They care passionately about New Zealand universities and the idea of a university. They have both had long careers in the university system, contributing greatly both to their own university (Auckland) and to pan‑university organisations including the Association of University Staff (formerly AUT), the University Grants Committee and the Vice‑Chancellors Committee. Not surprisingly for two long‑time teachers their approach is equally unashamedly didactic.

Since the publication of this book there has been some renewed interest in discussing the concept of universities and their contribution to society, rather than just reacting to the seemingly endless stream of review reports on tertiary education.

In late November, for instance, the Association of University Staff sponsored a seminar entitled The Idea of a University at which Simon Marginson of the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne and others challenged the relevance of Cardinal Newman’s concept of a university as we prepare to enter the third millennium.

Will universities survive? Or will the advent of the information superhighway be, as some have argued, the techno‑ecological change which ensures the extinction of the university dinosaur?

While this review, like the book on which it is focused, is about the universities during a decade of change, it is important to remember that universities are but one type of institution within the increasingly diverse tertiary education sector. In New Zealand that sector includes not only seven universities, but also 25 polytechnics, five colleges of education, two wananga and numerous private training establishments.

There is no doubt that the tertiary education sector will survive and most probably it will continue to include institutions within it called universities, but in the future they will be increasingly what Marginson calls “sites of difference”. What goes on within the walls (and even that term itself will stretch the architectural imagination) will become ever more diverse ‑ in the programmes offered, their modes of delivery and the students to whom they are offered.

Whatever their form in the future, universities will continue to be, as Butterworth and Tarling describe them, “complex organism[s] carrying the living past into [their] future”.

Optimist that I am, I believe we will all be the richer ‑ culturally, socially, intellectually and economically – for the survival of universities. In large part, however, it is universities’ own responsibility to ensure that we are so enriched and thereby to ensure also their own survival.

Let me conclude where I began and give the last word in the present round of hostilities to Emeritus Professor Max Charlesworth. He recently reflected (“From Dawkins to Where”, Journal of Tertiary Education Administration, Vol 15 No 1, May 1993, pp7‑17) on the difficulties Australian universities were facing post‑Dawkins, in the light of his attendance at the 900th anniversary of the University of Bologna and said:

I felt that, although the university as an institution had undergone radical transformations during those 900 years, there was also a real continuity between us and the scholars … and students of eleventh-century Bologna, we were about the same business. I also felt very keenly that any human institution that had been in business for more than 900 years must have something going for it and would not easily succumb to any barbarians that might be outside its gates.

Penny Fenwick is Academic Registrar at Victoria University of Wellington and was previously policy and research manager in several government departments, including the Ministry of Education.