Anne Salmond: Minister wrong to trample student rights

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Government's attempt to restructure university councils shows arrogance and contravenes Education Act.

New Zealand universities have taken pride in retaining their academic freedom. Photo / Mark Mitchell
New Zealand universities have taken pride in retaining their academic freedom. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The current attempt by the Minister of Tertiary Education, Steven Joyce, to whip the country's universities into line with Government thinking by restructuring university councils is heavy handed and misguided.

There is a breath-taking arrogance in the assumption that the minister knows more about what the country's 150,000 university students ought to be studying than they do. In a democracy, young people have the right to make their own choices about what they study, and their careers.

Likewise, it is arrogant for any minister to suppose that he or she knows more about what university teachers ought to be teaching, and university researchers ought to be researching than they do.

Many of them are at the cutting edge of their disciplines, and no one knows where the next great discovery or idea will come from. Attempts by governments to control university research and teaching always backfire for this reason, stifling creativity and innovation.

It is also remarkable that the minister is willing to try to override the opposition of university councils to the proposed legislation. These include Government appointees and many with business backgrounds, who have had the opportunity to examine the governance of universities around the world.

Many great universities have councils much larger than those in New Zealand, representing those with a stake in advancing the frontiers of knowledge - students, staff and a range of community representatives.

The minister's stated intention to shift universities away from the arts and humanities and towards a focus on science and technology is also mistaken.

This shift will lock New Zealand's intellectual life into an anachronistic mode, based on a radical split between science and technology on the one hand, and inquiry into human life on the other.

In the contemporary world, this division has proved to be non-adaptive. The most intractable "wicked problems" that confront us - climate change, losses of biodiversity, the acidification of the ocean and growing inequalities among people in access to the planet's resources, for example - are driven by complex biophysical systems that involve human activity at every scale.

One of our most urgent challenges is to bring the human and the natural sciences closer together, in order to devise new ways of thinking about these problems. The minister's strategy is unhelpful, heading in precisely the opposite direction.

In democratic countries, the intellectual independence of universities is jealously protected, alongside the freedom of the press and the judiciary, as a safeguard against abuses of executive power. It is only in totalitarian societies that politicians try to run universities, and they always fail.

This is also true in New Zealand. The Education Act guarantees "the freedom of academic staff and students, within the law, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions"; and "the freedom of the institution and its staff to regulate the subject matter of courses taught at the institution." The attempt by the minister to dictate to universities what they should teach and research flies in the face of these legal protections.

The last time a New Zealand government tried to take control of the universities was in the 1980s, when a neo-liberal Labour government with an affable, jokey Prime Minister and a Cabinet full of Ayn Rand superheroes also thought that they needed to tell New Zealand university students what to study, and university teachers and researchers what to think. At that time they failed, because New Zealanders stood up and defended their right to independence of thought and debate in the nation's universities. They saw that academic freedom is an important check on executive power.

As in the 1980s university councils, staff and students are united in their opposition to the "reforms". University councils realise that if their institutions are increasingly brought under ministerial direction, they can no longer attract or retain world-class teachers and researchers, because such individuals will not be harnessed to political agendas.

The proposals to restructure university councils should be dropped. They are a very bad idea.

Dame Anne Salmond is a Distinguished Professor of Maori Studies and Anthropology at the University of Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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