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JOHN RAINE: Refocusing our Universities on Excellence

Many will have raised a glass to the 27th March Government announcement of the establishment of the University Advisory Group (UAG), which will consider the effectiveness of the current university system in supporting teaching and research.  There are key issues to address around the university business model, operational efficiency, and the loss of political neutrality.

University Funding and Business Models

Universities now wrestle with a Government contribution, down relative to inflation by over 40% over the past 34 years.  The market-led business model should likely be reshaped towards a capping of numbers of students at university, so that more will study at polytechnics towards valuable vocational and other skills needed by employers.

The present situation has been aggravated by a ballooning in numbers of administrative staff relative to academics. Some support services are essential, but our ratio of non-academic to academic staff of 1.5 to 1 is much higher than in Australia, the UK, or the USA (where it is about 0.8 to 1).  Battalions of “managers” and support staff have appeared in areas such as Human Resources, Health and Safety, Student Learning Support and Pastoral Care, Outreach, Māori and Pasifika directorates, and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) support (including LGBQTI+). This bureaucratic inefficiency has been offset by the massive growth in full-fee-paying international student numbers from the mid-late 1990’s to create a $5Bn (2019) export industry, but international revenue losses led to large-scale redundancies when the Covid-19 lockdowns and border closure occurred.

Equity versus Excellence

Over about 30 years, New Zealand’s education system has progressively adopted socially constructed learning approaches that involve sometimes anti-science “other ways of knowing” and a focus on equity ahead of excellence. This situation has contributed to falling standards and achievement from primary through to tertiary levels, and funding of some research of limited quality and reach.  


In the tertiary sector specifically, a critical issue for universities throughout the Western world, has been the ideological shift away from institutional political neutrality, and a focus on teaching and research excellence, towards the critical social justice (CSJ) politics of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). I have, with co-authors, touched on some of these developments in several articles [for example, references 1 - 5].  DEI agendas focus mostly on race and gender identity issues and have become, ironically, oppressive and exclusionary.  This shift has been fostered in New Zealand by the Ministry of Education (MoE), and in research funding, by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE).   DEI activism in our universities is an aggravating factor in their present financial difficulties.  

CSJ activism has led to a loss of freedom of speech and of academic freedom more widely within universities in the Western world, self-censoring of research journals to avoid giving offence to any particular identity group and, worst of all, widespread career-damaging cancellation or even loss of employment for staff who speak out against the overbearing nature of institutional DEI policies. New Zealand academic staff have not been immune from this.

Open Inquiry versus Indoctrination

In New Zealand campuses, CSJ politics have been demonstrated through the universities declaring themselves te Tiriti-led and incorporating Te Ao Māori as a dominant culture within the university.  This situation has caused a de facto politicisation of the sector, and the introduction within science programmes of matauranga Māori courses (to become mandatory in 2025 in at least one university) is moving these institutions away from open inquiry and debate to places where some taught material that includes aspects of myth, vitalism and animism cannot be questioned. Such an environment leads to a culture of indoctrination, which should have no place in a university.

By all means, let us study and celebrate indigenous and traditional knowledge from New Zealand and other countries, but within the university context all subjects should allow open exploration, doubt and discussion of new ideas. The promotion by MoE and MBIE of equivalent status (mana orite) between matauranga Māori and modern science may have been well-intentioned but can only be seen as a cultural relativist assertion that does not stand scientific scrutiny.

Matauranga Māori involves wide knowledge from observation of nature, including flora and fauna, a phenomenological understanding of ecosystems, local geology and geography, the weather and celestial navigation. However, without written language, metal smelting, the wheel, mathematics, all of the physics, chemistry and biology, and advances of modern science, in technological terms matauranga Māori corresponds to knowledge in other societies predating 3000 BC. 

Philosophical and scientific advances of the liberal enlightenment, from about the mid-17th century to the present day, have delivered huge benefits in health, nutrition, domestic comfort, quality of life, life expectancy, and a codified legal system that were not available from indigenous knowledge systems. Advances of modern science have been described as tools of colonial oppression. In my view they are not, and science itself is universal and apolitical. The technology developed from science has sometimes been used for political ends, and not all scientists have behaved with integrity or compassion, but the Ministry of Education should not be inviting our young people to believe that mathematics is neither benign, neutral nor culture-free [6]. 


Where to from here? 

Thirteen recommendations for recovery of the university sector were made to the incoming Government in a letter to the Post of 3rd November 2023 [4]. While funding and operational efficiency must be addressed, critical among these recommendations were that our universities: 

(i)         Remain entirely neutral at the institutional level on all matters related to the politics of diversity, equity, inclusion, and cultural affiliation to any one ethnic group, while supporting open academic discourse on all matters within the institution.  In this regard, university Councils and Vice Chancellors would do well to remember the words in the USA Kalven Committee Report of 1967 [7] on the vital need for institutional neutrality: “The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic”.

(ii)       Ensure that true academic freedom and freedom of speech exists within their institutions. 

(iii)      Refocus on a merit-based system of recruitment, selection and promotion for staff, and merit-based admission and assessment of students, neither of these driven by ideological or political agendas. 

A Symposium on The Future of Our Universities

On May 15th 2024, a symposium “The Future of our Universities”, organised by the New Zealand Initiative and the Royal Society Te Apārangi Wellington Branch, will be held at the Royal Society Te Apārangi premises in Wellington. This symposium comes at a pivotal time for academia throughout the Western World.  

This symposium must look beyond the ideologies that are damaging our education system and address what must be done for our universities to become politically neutral, excellence-focused, economically viable and efficient, offering a wide range of programmes across the sciences and humanities, as well as ensuring that we deliver the numbers and quality of graduates to meet the needs of professions such as engineering, IT, law, medicine and teaching.  At a time when even the continuation of democracy in New Zealand society has come into question, it is vital for academia, both to recapture the values of open inquiry of the liberal enlightenment, and to find a way to welcome indigenous and traditional knowledges without their presence being imposed as a quasi-political requirement.  


John Raine is an Emeritus Professor of Engineering and held Deputy and Pro Vice Chancellor roles in three New Zealand Universities.  






1.         John Raine, David Lillis, and Peter Schwerdtfeger, “Where are our Universities Heading?” Breaking Views, 28th June 2023. (Reprinted in Bassett Brash and Hide 29th June 2023)

2.         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)

3.         David Lillis, John Raine, Peter Schwerdtfeger. “Funding of Research in New Zealand” Breaking Views, 18th August, 2023. (Reprinted in Bassett Brash and Hide 19th August, 2023)

4.         Peter Schwerdtfeger, John Raine et al. “The Challenge of Sustaining a World-Class University System”. The Post, 3rd November 2023.

5.         John Raine, “Can our Universities Rescue Themselves from Politicisation?”, Bassett Brash and Hide, 15th December 2023. 

6.         “The Common Practice Model – Phase 1: Principles and Pedagogical Approaches”, Curriculum Centre (Te Poutahu), Ministry of Education, 2023.

7.         Kalven Committee Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action, University of Chicago, 11th November 1967. Report on the University's Role in Political and Social Action (Kalven) (


3,576 views139 comments


John, I'm no academic by university standards although I tutored electrical engineering at a polytech for nearly 10 years and have a current Inspector practising license. I did a few subjects in adult teaching through open polytech but gave up due to the woke crap they were spouting that has absolutely nothing to do with electrical engineering but lots to do with ticking boxes.

But there is a glaringly obvious correlation to the demise of our education system as a whole, and it is the increasingly compulsory inclusion of matauranga Māori, Te Ao maori, Te Reo into every subject no mater how technically advanced in science that subject is.

Its called "Maorification", which is a type of social engineering or…

Replying to

I totally agree !!! Over the years I too have been subjected to a great deal of attempted maorification. Much of it total nonsense and historically inaccurate.

Social engineering. Quite sinister.


And the weather reports can be simplified, as shown:


Reinvent the news.

A lot more laughs 😃 and a,lot more giggles.

Aaron 👍


Most excellent & sadly accurate thank you John. Hopefully we eventually follow the fight back we are seeing in the US, Supreme Court ruling etc. the irony of DEI madness is that they now all look different but all follow the same narrative. Where’s the diversity in that? Frank Furedi on Substack has written an excellent piece on tolerance & judgement. DEI policies are not actually ‘tolerance’ as those anppointed/admitted are all essentially of the same mindset. Judgement of other views, as Furedi argues, is fine, indeed essential, for it then requires active tolerance instead of passive assimilation like the Borg (my Star Trek ref, not his!)


Fully agree. Yesterday spent time with fellow grads of the 60-70s. We were well able to write on:

Dr Samuel Johnson - "Opera - An irrational and exotic entertainment" - Discuss...... My skin crawls at what might be offered today.... And not one Maori term required. Doubt any grad today can write from any other than the REQUIRED POINT OF VIEW.....

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