Key Points:

By Wilf Malcolm and Nicholas Tarling
Published by Dunmore Publishing.

The question mark in the title of Wilf Malcolm's and Nicholas Tarling's

Crisis of Identity? The Mission and Management of Universities in New Zealand

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is irksome. Academics of their standing, having exhaustively researched their topic, should be able to make up their minds.

Although the book makes a compelling case for how the ideology of the new right and the rise of managerialism in the '80s had a punishing effect on collegiality in New Zealand universities, the pair remain diffident to the end. Even their knockout sentence is prefaced with "ums" and "ahs" about whether they might have it wrong. But once they allow themselves to say it, the words have impact.

"We are sure that we detect among staff, academic as well as general, a feeling of helplessness, of alienation, even at times of fear, that seems to us utterly alien to the proper spirit of a university, and utterly incompatible with its proper aspirations."

If that's not a crisis of identity, then what is?

If anyone should know it's these two. Malcolm is the former vice-chancellor of the University of Waikato, and Tarling the Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Auckland and former Dean of Arts and deputy vice-chancellor.

Both were active in negotiations with government over university reforms from 1984 to 1999 and played significant roles in mitigating some of the changes. But as they acknowledge in the book, they were perhaps so busy fighting change from without that they missed what was happening within.

Malcolm and Tarling highlight as the turning point the change in the role of the vice-chancellor to that of chief executive and the employer of university staff .

Previously the University Council was the employer and the vice-chancellor was one who epitomised and upheld university values - academic freedom, the pursuit of knowledge and above all, collegiality.

The change swept in with the tide of free-market reform where students became both products and consumers, and universities had to be responsible to the market and stakeholders. Vice-chancellors, now chief executives with the power to hire and fire, put in executive deans to run faculties who in turn put in executive heads of departments and schools - line managers accounting to central control and apparently guaranteeing quality.

What universities got was an enthusiastic embrace of managerialism - a package of management techniques including "an emphasis on productivity and output".

In the process, says

Crisis of Identity?,

something fundamental to the proper working of a university was undermined. The first half of the book explores concepts intrinsic to university learning over the ages; concepts such as collegiality, and, quoting John Henry Newman, the university's essential nature - a place that apprehends "the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little".

The second half of

Crisis

takes the narrative of New Zealand universities as a case study tracking the development of university ideals and governance both past and present. It's in the period 1984-1999, as the pair wade through dry detail of both Labour and National party reforms, that one begins to understand the authors are not so much diffident, but engaged in an act of penance.

Their charting of the arrival of "massification", "marketisation" and "accountability" canvases the flipside of the debate - that collegial governance is slow and inefficient and that one of the reasons for the reforms was universities were bogged down in a mire of decision by committee.

The disappointment of

Crisis

is that it could have joined a few more dots. At Auckland University alone there have been several reported examples where management decisions have been called into question - and have had a profound effect on morale and reputation. Some analysis of how such decisions were made, with or without consultation, would have been illuminating.

The strength of the account of the reform period is that Malcolm and Tarling were there. Their last chapter puts forward a set of principles as the basis for managing universities into the future. Crucially, the role of vice-chancellor is checked by the university's academic board or senate, reasserting the collegial character of academic life and electing as its chair not the vice-chancellor, but one of its membership.