Guest Post: University Councils

A guest post by Rory McCourt, President and Sandra Grey NZTEU President

Students and Staff: the heart of independent universities

 In February, the Government passed the Education Amendment Bill (No. 2), which increased the power of ministerial appointees to New Zealand’s eight university councils and removed the requirement for them to have student and staff representatives.

 The major objection we had, and continue to have, to Minister Joyce’s changes is that they increase the proportion of ministerial appointees, to one third of each council. There is a greater risk that a future minister of any political persuasion could use those ministerial appointees to gain control of councils and more brazenly implement the government’s agenda.

You might support government, which represent taxpayers, having more control over universities.

But what if I told you the next government could be, heaven forbid, a Labour-Green government. Imagine the kinds of policies that government could push through universities to advance its own political agenda.

Accountability to government is important. The tertiary education sector spends about $2b a year goes on compliance costs. But accountability is not the same thing as control.

University councils have always had a mix of left and right, business and union, student and management. That created debate, and built better institutions. Sometimes, to that minister’s frustration, these councils didn’t dance to his or her tune! Universities have stood up for academic freedom. Universities have been incubators for economic and political movements right across the spectrum.

Those movements and ideas have flourished without political interference. When politicians do decide what to teach and research, it can get messy. One needs only see the way the Australian Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, is trying to foist the climate denial ‘consensus centre’ on their universities. If Keith Holyoake had this new system, would he have tolerated Vietnam protests? If the First Labour Government could have controlled our universities would monetarist thought have had the space to survive?

To build innovative, challenging universities, our universities need institutional autonomy. Because, while the minister might be ‘Mr Fix It’ today, tomorrow it could be someone with a very different agenda and many of you will wish we didn’t give the keys to our universities to the politicians.

The law has passed and we can’t change that now. But we can make the best of a bad situation.

We can counterbalance the risk of a future minister misusing the power of his or her appointees by setting aside a third of seats on the new university councils for democratically elected staff and students.

Staff and students are diverse and they hold all possible political views, but they are people who value knowledge and the importance of academic freedom. And being elected to council rather than appointed gives them the independence to speak their mind. We, the public, pay billions to run our universities. We should keep them transparent with elected councillors whose interest is in quality of education.

and NZUSA are calling for a third of seats to be reserved so that there is some balance to the ministerial power-grab. We hope you will join us and protect the best of our universities. 

Rory McCourt
National President
NZUSA ­The New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations

Sandra Grey
National President
New Zealand Tertiary Education Union

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