McCutcheon gives a few options: increased public investment, greater exclusivity, higher tuition fees, or more specialization within existing institutions.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?
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.