Wednesday, 2 May 2012


University of Auckland Vice-Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon lays out some options for the New Zealand tertiary system given long-term decline in international rankings.
The single biggest challenge facing New Zealand universities is that we operate with the lowest expenditure per student of any system in the developed world. For example, at the University of Auckland we have an annual budget of about $950 million for 40,000 students (32,000 full-time equivalents) while the universities of New South Wales and Queensland - with only slightly higher student numbers - have budgets of around A$1.6 billion ($2 billion) a year.
In terms of quality/rankings relative to cost, we have probably the most efficient university system in the world and we are doing well when compared with the level of investment. But others are investing far more and are consequently doing better. Are we as a nation prepared to accept this, or do we want to have a strategy that will allow us to compete globally for the best and brightest?
McCutcheon gives a few options: increased public investment, greater exclusivity, higher tuition fees, or more specialization within existing institutions.
These are difficult choices and they need to be debated. But any such debate has to accept that New Zealand cannot have, at the same time, the present large numbers of students attending university, heavily constrained levels of government funding, low tuition fees, a uniform tertiary system and high quality.
I can't see how greater specialization much helps. If you turn Canterbury into Engineering University and forbid the other schools from offering engineering, you have two problems. First, you wind up with engineers who've never taken an elective in anything else. Second, there's nobody for the engineering students to date, so there won't be many engineers.

Big picture, I think McCutcheon is right. But I wonder whether he's left an option off the table because it would be, well, difficult. In a country of 4.4 million people, we have 7 universities (plus the Wananga which offers a somewhat orthogonal service). From north to south: Auckland, Waikato, Massey, Victoria, Canterbury, Lincoln, Otago. There are economies of scale in provision of tertiary education. You can put on better programmes with more students in a major.

I wonder whether Grandpa Simpson might have been on to something:
Dear Mr. President. There are too many states nowadays. Please eliminate three. I am not a crackpot.*
New Zealand has about the same population as British Columbia. BC has four research-focused universities: UBC, Victoria, Simon Fraser and (according to Wikipedia) the University of Northern British Columbia; there are also a few targeted at undergraduate education in smaller settings. New Zealand tries to fund seven research-active institutions. That's perhaps sustainable if we can manage to attract a lot more international students. But everybody else in the world is also trying to do that too. And the longer term game may yet play out badly.

National's signalling transferring some tertiary funding from student support to research support in the next budget. It'll be interesting to see how they allocate it across the universities. PBRF is an awfully expensive mechanism in terms of research time forgone in paperwork.


  1. is it possible to create strong incentives through regulation or funding to make public entities consider and act on the wider public benefits of mergers? or do you just crash them together?

    1. It would take *substantial* work to figure out the best way of achieving it.

  2. You see, I can see how some degree of specialisation / course restriction would help here. For example Lincoln and Massey already focus on agricultural sciences, Otago and Auckland host medical schools, so there is the potential to trim down or merge faculties at the universities. This does depend to a degree (pun intended) on the demand for each course. If we have a huge interest in Art History around the country and internationally, and all universities are able to offer high quality degrees in the subject then sure, host these courses on several campuses. But if student demand is lower then some specialisation might be a good idea. You might find that something like Art History could be offered only in 3 locations (Auck, Wgtn, Chch for example) and that departmental mergers might be effective.
    Note: Apologies to be ArtHis folks out there, I was simply using you as an example and was not intending to suggest that your chosen field is any less deserving/valuable.

  3. One thing that could be done at the grad level is to follow the Scottish model. In our case we could have one PhD program in economics, or whatever, in Auckland, say, move the students up there and have staff fly in for a day or two to give lectures. After the students have done the coursework they could then move to wherever their supervisor is.

  4. Articles like this illustrate why NZ needs to get the research structure sorted sooner rather than later.

    Maybe consolidation into four research centres should be the goal. However, as usual the discussion will devolve into why local-yokel town x is hard done by, just like towns that complain they don't make the weather segment on the news. But as I see it there is nothing stopping the universities from having more than 1 campus if desired for particular courses etc.