Alan Cocker: No, minister, this isn't good enough

Photo / Greg Bowker
Photo / Greg Bowker

Steven, I have assessed your paper on university governance and I have given it a grade. I know you will be disappointed by the mark so I will outline at some length why this submission does not meet the required tertiary level standard.

First, some general points: I know you have been busy with other assignments and have spent some time in San Francisco recently, but this paper does not reflect the research and thought that is to be expected in a project at this level. The core of the paper, which you entitle: "Why the Government is reviewing legislative settings for university governance", only amounts to one and a half pages.

The arguments are slight with an almost complete absence of evidence for the claims made.

Second, in any review paper it is very important to clearly state what the problem is and why the current situation demands change before you outline the argument for reform. You have not done this.

I will now address the paper in more detail. Your first point is that the Government seeks to ensure that tertiary institutions are governed as efficiently and effectively as possible to help them build on their performance. However, as you then characterise them as "performing well" it is very important for you to address why change is necessary.

The argument appears to be that the changes proposed are to meet future challenges. Yet the four challenges you cite are not new: the emergence of online courses, responding to areas of high occupational demand such as information technology and engineering, making strategic investments to enhance attractiveness to students and attracting international students at a time competition for them is increasing.

For your argument to be convincing it is very important that you demonstrate how these challenges are not being dealt with by existing university governance structures and how what you propose would be beneficial. International case studies would be one way you might support this argument or you could provide clear local examples where university governance has failed to meet these challenges.

You argue that the current governance settings for universities are based on a representative model which you see as a negative as it "prioritises stakeholder representation over the governance skills and abilities of council members".

However, you neglect to mention that this is a common and important feature in the governance of public institutions and bodies and is, of course, a cornerstone of a democratic state.

Universities are public institutions and the communities they are a part of have long-established rights to participate in their governance as they do with the election of governments, school boards of trustees, elected representatives for District Health Boards and local government control of publicly owned arts, sports and library facilities.

Furthermore, you do not provide any explanation as to what are the capabilities and abilities you are seeking on university councils and how these would differ from the existing range of skills.

You state that the minister and councils would be required to appoint people "who have skills and experience that make them capable of governing universities". Do they not do this at present?

The paper acknowledges that universities have "unique characteristics", which would logically suggest that their governance would demand experience with or within these unique institutions. I do not think this is what you mean as the proposed legislation would remove requirements to have staff and student representation.

A key change outlined in this review appears to be a reduction in the size of the councils. At present they are to have no fewer than 12 members and no more than 20. You wish to reduce the number to no fewer than eight members and no more than 12.

The rationale for this change is that the present legislation "may allow councils that are too big and operate inefficiently". One way councils could be quickly reduced in size would be fewer political appointments and yet the only representation which would remain without change in their number would be the political appointees.

In any event it does not follow that because one council is larger than another ipso facto it will be less efficient. Again in order to justify this position you need to provide evidence. A study of university councils analysing size with effectiveness may be one way you could demonstrate this.

This review is too reliant on unsubstantiated propositions. As a result the arguments are all tentative: present councils "may" not respond to future challenges, smaller councils "may" be more flexible and efficient, councils "could" be stronger if the governance skills and experience of council members is explicitly prioritised.

The education sector in New Zealand has recently suffered from initiatives such as the amalgamation or closure of schools in Christchurch or the implementation of payroll software where insufficient research and consultation has resulted in poor outcomes.

This is an inadequate piece of work which requires a great deal more research and thought. D-.

Associate Professor Alan Crocker is head of the school of communications at AUT University. These views are his own.

- NZ Herald

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