The assertion that all human knowledge is equally valid and the university is a site of power contestation makes it easier to understand the abandonment of fundamental academic principles, not least that of academic freedom (Doug Stokes in “Against Decolonisation” pp. 83-84).
As New Zealand Universities move further towards becoming ethno-institutions we state again our serious concerns for the survival of the New Zealand university as an independent and internationally-focused place of higher learning and research, where diverse views may be discussed on any matter and where modern world science is not diminished through promotion of “other ways of knowing.”
Embedding of the Treaty of Waitangi and matauranga Māori within our universities, and the wider research and innovation system, follows similar trends in education, public health and elsewhere. Government now proposes to favour Māori research and researchers over others . New Zealand should support excellent Māori research, but within well defined standards and limits, as there is no sufficient justification for preferring lightweight research of limited reach over true excellence on a systemic basis.
Our earlier articles [ 2, 3, 4, 5, 6] have looked in some detail at
• The universities’ loss of political neutrality through critical social justice activism and embracing the idea of being tiriti o Waitangi–led, without any clear definition of what this actually means.
• The potential or actual loss of international credibility and reputation if our universities continue to demand mandatory matauranga Māori courses within Science degree programmes.
• The loss of at least part of our international student market if aspiring students perceive New Zealand universities to be ethnic universities where there is compulsion around engagement with Te Ao Māori and matauranga Māori.
• The exacerbation of current financial difficulties caused by flat or declining local and/or international student enrolments.
• The huge cost of bloated university administrations at a time when academic programmes are being cut across the board in order to meet budget requirements.
• The oppressive requirements around addressing Vision Matauranga in research grant bids, the demise of research excellence as the key criterion for success in research grant bids, and the loss of a universal merit-based system.
• The promotion of equivalence between matauranga Māori (Māori traditional knowledge from observation of nature, lore, myth and legend) and modern world science. This is part of a decolonisation narrative supported in the universities and by the current Government. This narrative has been enabled by critical social justice activism through the Ministry of Education, MBIE, schools and universities. In the end, it is science that provides a reliable means of understanding the world, and of responding to the complex challenges currently facing humanity (including remediation of environmental damage, control of infectious diseases, safely managing Artificial Intelligence and biotechnology, and security of food and energy supply).
• The inability of academics to speak out critically, without being censured, on the place of matauranga Māori in university studies, and on racism in the national research funding system where excellent science is being rejected unless there is Māori involvement.
• The politicisation of school education evident in the initially released new draft curriculum – this was nothing short of a Treaty-centric cultural indoctrination manifesto. We recommend in this regard that readers look at the 23rd September 2023 post on Breaking Views NZ by Jerry Coyne .
Observing Current Developments
We update our earlier articles with just a few current issues that we are observing:
(i) There is accelerating Treatyism in the universities and censure of and accusations of racism against those who speak out against matauranga Māori being incorporated into school and university curricula, especially given that the proponents see this as content that cannot be questioned by anyone who is not Māori.
(ii) The national contestable research grant system continues to be driven by critical social justice theory and Treaty activism to the detriment of the funding of excellent science. One recent example is the rejection of an MBIE Smart Ideas bid involving a senior Physics Professor where a main weakness was noted as follows:
“There is minimal recognition of the contribution of Māori people, knowledge and resources. The project will not be co-led by Māori and does not currently include Māori team members. It is not clear how the outputs and outcomes of the proposed project will create impact for Māori.”
This was a project in advanced theoretical and experimental physics where matauranga Māori was not relevant - consultation with local Iwi had been undertaken with the feedback that it had no direct relevance to Vision Mātauranga for this project in its current state. It is our understanding that funding applicants can justify not including Vision Mātauranga in a project, and it is oppressive and prejudicial that the funding rules are being interpreted to make Māori engagement mandatory.
(iii) A senior academic at one of our universities recently had a research paper rejected (after initially favourable review) by a journal published at a New Zealand university because this academic “did not have the right ancestry.” This was a blatantly racist rejection of work from one of New Zealand’s most respected researchers in their field. The assertion that someone’s ancestry has a bearing on the acceptance of a journal article is one of the prohibited grounds of discrimination in the New Zealand Human Rights Act 1993.
(iv) The ongoing announcements of closures of academic programmes in traditional areas such as STEM and subsequent loss of staff positions caused by the universities’ financial woes and questionable management decisions raise major concerns around the setting of priorities to ensure that New Zealand universities can retain and, if possible, improve their world rankings. There is no doubt that the current funding model for universities is well overdue for review and that per capita student funding has been in decline in real terms for 30 years. However, it is also true that university administrations have ballooned over this period, in the way of all self-sustaining bureaucracies, and to the detriment of academic performance. Since 1990, the market orientation of universities has led to massive employment growth in the following academically non-productive areas, most of which need a zero-based redesign to rein in costs that are among the highest in the western world:
• Marketing and community outreach.
• Student learning and pastoral care support.
• Equity and diversity support.
• Dedicated Māori and Pasifika administrations under senior managers at the level of Pro Vice Chancellor.
• Human Resources services, which have become oppressive over process, and over-controlling. Overt pressure has been experienced over equity appointments in areas where the best possible appointment on merit is critical to an academic programme.
• Postgraduate administrative services, including among other things, supervision training. In at least three New Zealand universities senior and experienced academic staff are advised that they must regularly attend such training courses, or their rights to supervise postgraduates will otherwise be withdrawn.
(The costs of just the above operations consume much of the fee income paid by students or their families.)
The following areas have grown substantially but are or may be net revenue earners:
• Research and Innovation services - depending on research administration staff input resulting in a higher success rate on grant applications or research commercialisation projects.
• Alumni and Development - if active in fund raising.
• International student marketing and recruitment.
The just announced loss of STEM programmes at Massey University, and the earlier programme closure announcements from Victoria University of Wellington are examples of the growing consequences of the toxic mix of long-term under-funding, questionable senior management/leadership decisions, damaging ideologies, excessive bureaucracy and a top-down managerial structure.
(v) The recent 2023 UK Times High Education rankings show New Zealand university rankings falling. We don’t have any in the THE top 100 and New Zealand’s highest ranked university, the University of Auckland, fell slightly from 137th to 139th. To maintain and grow these rankings, and to grow our reputation and international student enrolments, New Zealand must teach a broad range of internationally relevant courses, free of politically motivated ideologies and be research-intensive in internationally relevant research. We will not achieve this objective by becoming inward-looking and focused on social justice and equity at the expense of excellence. We will not achieve it by teaching science which has been mixed with myth and legend. If we cannot take a truly international perspective, how long will it be, for example, before the Chinese government decides New Zealand is no longer a suitable international university education provider?
Where to from Here?
Underlying the foregoing issues there is the ongoing question of the future funding model for universities. In our view, this does not relate to over-supply of universities - on a per capita basis we look pretty much like other western countries - affirmed by Universities New Zealand CEO, Chris Whelan, talking with Michael Laws on The Platform 4th October 2023. Without doubt, it is vital that the Vice Chancellors engage collectively with the incoming Minister of Education after the October 2023 election and negotiate a basis for review of the funding model.
For its part, the incoming government must step back from critical social justice activism. It must also oblige the universities to control non-academic costs, focus on maximising degree programme delivery and research, step back from Treaty-led activism and social justice theories, and regain their politically neutral positions, if they are to remain internationally credible institutions of higher learning.
University Vice Chancellors and Deans must also exhibit inclusive leadership that encourages open, collegial debate and discussion, particularly on highly-contested issues. Suppression of such debate negates a core role of our universities.
This article first appeared in Breaking Views. The opinions expressed here are those of the writers, and not of the universities with which they are or were formerly affiliated.
John Raine is an Emeritus Professor of Engineering and held Deputy and Pro Vice Chancellor roles across three New Zealand Universities. His responsibilities have included research, research commercialisation and internationalisation.
Dr David Lillis is a retired researcher, statistician and academic manager who also worked for several years in research evaluation for the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology.
Peter Schwerdtfeger is a distinguished professor in theoretical chemistry and physics and Head of the New Zealand Institute for Advanced Study at Massey University.
1. Tertiary Education Commission (2022) Performance-Based Research Fund https://www.tec.govt.nz/funding/funding-and-performance/funding/fund-finder/performance-based-research-fund/
2. John Raine, David Lillis, and Peter Schwerdtfeger, “Where are our Universities Heading?” Breaking Views, 28th June 2023. https://breakingviewsnz.blogspot.com/2023/06/john-raine-david-lillis-peter.html#more (Reprinted in Bassett Brash and Hide 29th June 2023)
3. John Raine, “The Laws of Science Haven’t Changed” Breaking Views, 11th July 2023. https://breakingviewsnz.blogspot.com/2023/07/john-raine-laws-of-science-havent.html (Reprinted in Bassett Brash and Hide 12th July 2023)
4. Peter Schwerdtfeger, John Raine, David Lillis. “Post-modernism and the Degrading of Education in New Zealand “ Breaking Views, 24th July 2023
(Reprinted in Bassett Brash and Hide 25th July 2023)
5. David Lillis, Peter Schwerdtfeger, John Raine & Raymond Richards. “Misinforming the Public”, Breaking Views 4th August 2023. https://breakingviewsnz.blogspot.com/2023/08/david-lillis-peter-schwerdtfeger-john.html
6. David Lillis, John Raine, Peter Schwerdtfeger. “Funding of Research in New Zealand” Breaking Views, 18th August, 2023. https://breakingviewsnz.blogspot.com/2023/08/david-lillis-john-raine-and-peter.html (Reprinted in Bassett Brash and Hide 19th August, 2023 )
7. Jerry Coyne: A good summary of the mess that is science education in New Zealand, Breaking Views, 23rd September 2023. https://breakingviewsnz.blogspot.com/2023/09/jerry-coyne-good-summary-of-mess-that.html