The New Zealand research and science sector has undergone a series of shocks this year with five of New Zealand’s eight universities all cutting or considering cutting large numbers of staff or entire subjects out of their offering.
Those are Victoria University of Wellington, The University of Otago, Auckland University of Technology, the University of Waikato, and Massey University.
Despite the government injecting more funding, cuts to R&D remain on the table for one or more of these universities, and rumblings of further rounds of cuts to an already reeling science system are being heard.
As a teacher, researcher and serial entrepreneur pulling hard to help make the New Zealand innovation ecosystem boat go faster, I am deeply troubled.
Economic growth is not the only reason for New Zealand to ensure it has a vibrant, sustainable university system, but it is a powerful one.
Our universities are key components in the engine that drives economic growth in New Zealand. Many of our most innovative people and ideas spinning out of our universities today have been built upon more than a decade of strategic investment in research and development by both National and Labour governments to improve the delivery of benefits to New Zealand through our research spend.
This investment is paying off. We have made significant progress in training an ambitious, high-tech workforce, and creating high-tech businesses for them to work in.
At the same time, we’ve seen a substantial expansion of our investment community that has the capital and resources to help drive these companies to economic success, including very welcome new levels of international investment in many of our best deep-tech and health-tech ideas.
We’re on the cusp of a virtuous cycle here that has the potential to make our high-tech sector truly transformational for New Zealand.
It’s certainly my experience that raising funds for a technology-based idea in New Zealand is a much richer experience than it was when we were pitching our first startup, Engender Technologies, just a few years ago.
University responses to short-term budget crunches should absolutely not result in throttling back New Zealand’s most powerful sources of innovative people and technology.
Cuts to research infrastructure at our universities now could be devastating to our innovation ecosystem in the long run. It takes a long time to build expertise in any discipline at a university, and once those staff are gone, it will be incredibly difficult, expensive, and time-consuming to build it back up again.
The risk is that our most inventive researchers will leave New Zealand to innovate elsewhere. The students and investment dollars will follow.
Why does it matter? Well, like the rest of the world, New Zealand faces challenges that will need the critical skills our students are learning in today’s university classrooms and labs to face challenges like climate change, clean water, and food production for everyone, and to implement this century’s high-tech innovations like photonics, quantum-cryptography and artificial intelligence.
I will not try to argue that universities are perfectly efficient machines. However, they also are not universally fiscally irresponsible organizations – to have so many in trouble like this points to a deeper problem with the system.
A short-term cash injection will not solve the problem. It’s like watering a plant only when it visibly wilts – you wind up with a plant that is not reliably productive, and risk that it will die altogether.
A rethink of the university funding model is urgently needed.
New Zealand taxpayers should have a financially sustainable university system that teaches and inspires our next generation, creates new knowledge and innovative solutions to the significant problems facing us, and does that in an outwardly facing, high-impact manner that benefits us all.
It would be difficult to argue that we have that today.
Professor Cather Simpson teaches and leads research in The University of Auckland’s Department of Physics and School of Chemical Sciences and serves on the boards of several technology companies and organisations.