Has New Zealand spread its funding for universities too thinly? Should we instead pursue quality over the quantity of students and institutions? Here, Professor Tim Hazeldine joins the debate, with a bold call for Auckland University to shrink in size and rise in standing.
When you get off the plane at Auckland Airport and go down the escalator to the arrivals area you are confronted with a large poster of a sleek, shiny German saloon car. The slogan reads: "It's amazing what you can come up with when you start with a clean sheet of paper."
Starting with a clean sheet of paper doesn't mean forgetting everything you've ever learnt. But it does mean not saddling yourself with the mistakes of the past - throwing good money after bad. And it does mean responding to today's - even better, tomorrow's - constraints and opportunities; not to search for solutions to obsolete problems.
So what if we applied clean-sheet planning to the nation's university system? There has been some grumbling lately, about squeezes in our funding lowering our standings in international league tables, and even about a "brain drain" of students heading off-shore.
I am actually not too worried. On the latter matter: it seems that some parents in our affluent Eastern suburbs are thinking it rather chic to send their children off to Australia, in particular to Melbourne, the "Old Money" university which operates a pastiche of the Oxbridge college system.
Well, good ... luck to them. I can safely assure everyone else that your kids will be well looked after at home. How do I know this? Partly from personal experience. I've taught at some of the better universities and I know that - Oxford excepted - undergraduate education standards are at least as high here as there.
But if so, what is it then that makes these other places "better" than us? This is where our problem is, and our opportunity. The very best students at the best universities in the world are actually no better than the best students at Auckland Uni. Indeed some of them were the best undergrad students at Auckland, before they went off to Stanford or Cambridge or similar to do their PhD research. And underpinning this is the key difference: higher research standards for both the academic staff and the postgraduate students they attract.
So how might we in New Zealand crank up our hiring and admission standards to close this gap?
If we want to try; to cover that clean sheet of paper with a viable plan for an elite, national champion university, we should first, of course, study the top overseas institutions to figure out what they do differently from us.
We would at once find three big points of difference. First, and most striking, is how remarkably small they are. The University of Auckland has about 40,000 students. Harvard has just over half that - 21,000. Cambridge has 18,500; Stanford 11,000; Princeton just 7500 (and 30 Nobel laureates on its present and past faculty). Harvard has a US$32 billion ($40.9 billion) endowment and receives 10 applications for every student place. It could easily expand to match Auckland's size, but it chooses not to. Hmm ...
The second and third points are that all the top campuses have a much higher ratio of postgraduate to undergraduate students, and a higher (academic) staff/student ratio.
These two factors are mutually reinforcing and they clearly have a lot to do with having an overall smaller student body.
So here's the plan. We know for sure that we can't spend our way to elite status, even if the Government would give us the money, which they won't. But we don't need to. We don't need any more public funding, but we do need the Government to let us - the University of Auckland - put up our student fees - a lot. Then we would, as economists say, move up the demand curve, reducing student numbers (though with generous scholarships to assist students from poorer families) while maintaining academic staff size to boost the ratio. We would concurrently of course raise entrance standards, both academic and in English language fluency, which should be mandated for both native and ESOL speakers, so the shared discourse can be at a high level of literacy, which it isn't now. The result would be that the demand curve would actually shift up - nothing attracts very bright students more than the prospect of working with other very bright people.
Why Auckland University? Because one part of our past tradition we need to keep is the ideal of widespread general access to tertiary education, and only this city is large enough to offer this from other campuses (AUT, Massey) to free up its colleague (UoA) to go for National Champion status, to the benefit of all. The other universities, or the Manukau or Unitech polytechnics, could also assist our downsizing by taking over our Tamaki campus and the College of Education.
But wouldn't having an elite university be "elitist"? I'd charge people who say this with elitism themselves - there's nothing wrong with the education provided by AUT or Massey or the polys. It's just a matter of horses for courses.
If we implemented this plan we would leap-frog all the Aussie institutions. We'd have the good burghers of Melbourne clamouring to send their kids to Auckland. They'd be most welcome - if they met the standard.
Tim Hazledine is a professor of economics at the University of Auckland.By Tim Hazledine