The Government has introduced into Parliament legislation that will significantly threaten the autonomy and international reputation of our universities. If enacted, it will reduce the size of university councils, markedly increase the proportion of members appointed by the responsible minister and remove the rights that our students and staff currently have to be represented in the governance of their own institution.
What is worrying is the minister has not been able to come up with a single cogent reason for the proposed changes, other than to suggest they might make the universities more fleet of foot and business-like. But such statements are unsupported by the evidence.
While it may be true that smaller boards work better in business, most of the world's leading universities have governing bodies considerably larger than the University of Auckland's 18 members: Melbourne has 20, Queensland 22, Cambridge 24, Oxford 25, Harvard 32, Stanford 33 and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology 72.
Some, such as New South Wales and the Australian National University, have fewer than us - 15 - though none as few as the eight to 12 being proposed for New Zealand. But the point is that large and diverse governing bodies are the norm in leading universities around the world.
It's also worth noting that in 2009 the Government radically altered the governance of New Zealand's institutes of technology and polytechnics, reducing their councils to eight members, half of them appointed by the Government. After those changes their performance, as measured by average profitability, actually declined. That may not be cause and effect, of course, but it certainly does not support the argument that smaller councils improve performance.
A second result of the proposals is that they will boost the proportion of council members appointed by the minister, from 20-25 per cent to 33-40 per cent. Why would the Government want to do that, when we already have on our councils outstanding business and community leaders - many, but not all of them, ministerial appointees? It can only be about achieving greater government control of the institutions, and that is a very dangerous thing to allow in a democracy. It is for this reason that the Education Act obliges us all, Government included, to "preserve and enhance autonomy and academic freedom". Of course, we should be accountable to the Government, because about half our revenues derive from the public purse - and we are. But no society that values its intellectual freedom should allow a situation where a government has so much control it can influence who is hired and what is taught. I'm not suggesting for a moment that the present Government intends such an outcome. But at 40 per cent government appointees we are only a step away from precisely that.
So how should we think about the governance of these large, important public institutions? A logical way would be to ask who owns them. The answer is that we all do. The Education Act specifies that universities comprise their governing body, chief executive, academic and professional staff, students and alumni. At present, those groups (other than alumni) must by law be represented on the University Council, with the Government as a significant investor in the institutions. Most councils also include representatives of the alumni, with other stakeholders such as Maori, Pasifika, employers, unions and local government. The proposed changes, if enacted, will permit the involvement of staff, students and alumni in governance, but only the involvement of the minister and of Maori will be required. While both those groups are clearly stakeholders in the university, so too are our 6000 staff, our 40,000 students and our 164,000 graduates. Reducing the council's size but not numbers of ministerial appointees makes it harder for them to be included.
It is this diversity of backgrounds and experiences that ensures we are business-like in our management of the university, but that we also add great value to our students and the community through our teaching, research and service. And it is this diversity of interests that ensures councils hold the universities in trust for future generations, as strong, accountable but independent institutions. As a democracy, we abandon that at our peril.
Professor Stuart McCutcheon is vice-chancellor of the University of Auckland.