Tim Hazledine: Universities don't need tinkering, just adequate cash

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Minister's plans for tertiary sector at odds with his own experience.

Steven Joyce set out to be a vet but found another path. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Steven Joyce set out to be a vet but found another path. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Steven Joyce has made himself into the Minister for All Things Large & Little. His energy is formidable. It seems that no sector of the economy is safe from his reforming zeal.

And as it happens my own field of activity - the university - falls directly into his purview as Minister of Tertiary Education.

So I was very interested to read Mr Joyce's response to the first of 12 Questions asked by Sarah Stuart on the back page of last Thursday's Herald. The question was about the usefulness of the minister's zoology degree from Massey University. After a bit of business about mating displays of mallard ducks, Mr Joyce got serious. Having failed to get into veterinary school (no shame in that - most people don't get in) he had been considering giving up uni, but was counselled to "just get a degree, any degree, because it's about how to learn. I use those skills every day".

I was thrilled to read this. I totally agree with the minister. University is, more than anything, about learning to think; learning to learn; learning to analyse and make sense of things.

The ostensible subject - unless it involves picking up specific professional skills such as treating sick animals - is secondary, and no particular help or hindrance to later success in life, as Mr Joyce's own hugely successful careers in business and politics amply demonstrate.

Indeed, I'd take it further. When I meet my Stage I Business School students for their first economics lecture I ask for a show of hands about what they expect to major in. The most common answer is accounting. Then I tell them (just once) that in my opinion it doesn't really matter much what actual courses you study at uni, so the smart thing is to take on the subject that grabs your interest most. If this is accounting, fine. But if it is, say, art history, then switch programmes right now before it is too late.

I also bring in another angle which I am pretty sure will impress them. I've got some interesting data from the New York Times on the percentage of people majoring in different subjects who end up in the top 1 per cent of the income distribution in the US - this means earning at least US$350,000 ($413,000) a year. Top of the list, naturally, are doctors. Second, to my surprise, are economics majors, about 8 per cent (one in 12) of whom get into the top group. For accountants, the success rate is only 3.9 per cent and as such is actually well below the rate for art history graduates, of whom nearly 6 per cent reach gilded status, I know not how.

So it all really bears out what Mr Joyce is saying. But this, unfortunately and puzzlingly, is in total contrast to what the minister is actually trying to do to the university system. He is hell-bent on imposing two "reforms" on us. One is to slim down university councils and stack them with people with "governance experience", which is code for business outsiders with no actual experience or knowledge about how universities and tertiary education work.

In fact, there is no governance problem in our universities. They are prudently managed. The Joyce proposal would be more likely to weaken genuine governance by hollowing out the inside knowledge that staff and student representatives on councils bring to the table.

Second - and this really conflicts with what he told Stuart - he wants to use his funding powers to force universities to switch resources to teaching more students in fields that he considers are going to be most useful to businesses and the economy, such as the "Stem" disciplines (science, technology, engineering and maths) and information technology. I am sorry, but this is really dumb and quite uncalled for. Forecasting labour skill "needs" is notoriously difficult and the people who do have some useful information are in the universities already.

In his answer to Stuart's second question, Mr Joyce revealed that he doesn't see himself as "right wing". Well, I agree: he's really just an old-fashioned socialist central planner at heart. With no disrespect intended, it's possibly for the better that Mr Joyce didn't make it into vet school. If he had, he'd now be roaming the countryside, diagnosing perfectly healthy animals with non-existent ailments. But at least he wouldn't be doing it to us.

The university system is in reasonably good health, if perhaps a little undernourished. Dear Minister, please just give us the resources we need and trust us to put them to good use.

Tim Hazledine is a professor of economics and a member of the Council of the University of Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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