We often tell our students that they are studying at a time of remarkable importance.
The signs of dramatic change are everywhere: China’s rise; a contest for influence in the IndoPacific that could beget violence; the eclipse of optimism about global trade; the collapse of confidence in multilateral institutions when climate change demands collaborative restraint; and a war between Russia and Ukraine that has changed the face of Europe.
Navigating these challenges will depend on New Zealand’s ability to think for itself.
That puts the intellectual capital that lies in our universities on the front line of that effort.
But our own students, expected to be tomorrow’s leaders, confront a dwindling set of options as our universities cut in panicky reactions to chronic government underfunding and pressures resulting from the Covid pandemic.
If it were just one university faced with a financial crisis, we might ask hard questions about its management. But when Otago, Massey, Victoria, AUT and Waikato are all rolling out a series of sweeping cuts, it tells you something bigger is going on.
Fifteen years of funding below the rate of inflation has built up like gas in a mine. The loss of international student revenue during the pandemic was the spark
While the cuts announced are deep and broad, affecting subjects as diverse as chemistry, physics, maths, secondary school teaching and music, our professional focus leads us to worry in particular about shrinking options for students to think about New Zealand’s place in the world.
Here the news is especially grim.
The University of Otago has moved to close Asian studies and German, and has reduced the rest of its teaching to a single full-time academic per language.
Victoria proposes eliminating German and Italian, leaving the remaining European languages and Chinese and Japanese with just two academics each. Asian studies will be cut to a single person. All the new roles will be “teaching-intensive” and not supported to do research.
These cuts come on top of the recent loss of Asian history expertise across the country, with retirements in Chinese and Indian history simply not replaced.
Critics will say the cuts reflect diminishing student demand. Courses aren’t paying for themselves. That’s the logic of the “bums on seats” model.
But surely the bigger question is what kind of teaching and research expertise do we need to have as a country?
Research published last week by the Asia New Zealand Foundation found four out of five New Zealanders believe teaching students about Asia and offering Asian language courses are important for New Zealand’s education system. They’re not wrong.
Teaching and research on languages are never going to fill huge lecture theatres, but the proposed cuts will leave us with little national capacity in areas vital to our country’s future.
What’s worse is an offer by some of the VCs to work on a collaborative funding model that recognises not every subject can be taught everywhere, was rejected out of hand by the Tertiary Education Commission.
This is a tragedy for many reasons.
We are denying future students the chance to learn about these cultures, languages, and societies in all their richness. New Zealand is the poorer for taking such an introspective turn.
Even if you want to ignore Dante and Goethe, Germany and Italy are both in the G7.
New Zealand just joined the EU’s Horizon Europe research programme worth $90 billion over the period 2021-26.
We should be under no illusions. If New Zealand doesn’t sustain our own expertise and if we aren’t teaching the next generation of thinkers, there will be others only too willing to help fill the gap.
Do we really want to outsource our language teaching to countries that will only allow a self-serving, state-sanctioned, version of their history and culture to be taught?
If we say we are serious about addressing challenges like foreign interference or disinformation, where will we find the people with the necessary linguistic and cultural skills?
The big geopolitical challenges we are grappling with require New Zealand expertise which understands the thinking of more than just the great powers. To manage the colossal changes that China’s rise is bringing to our wider region, we need to get inside Beijing’s outlook which requires linguistic, cultural and historical fluency.
But we also need to understand the way that China’s regional neighbours approach the challenge of Beijing’s influence, which they have seen wax and wane over the centuries.
If we don’t have people with deep knowledge of the languages, cultures, politics, and societies of our region, how will we make sense of our own interests as China, India and Japan jostle for power?
Our traditional partners will have suggestions but their interests will not always be identical to our own.
If we are serious about an independent foreign policy, we must grow New Zealand’s capacity for independent thought.
The cuts being proposed are a signpost in the opposite direction.
And they will cost some future government far more than the investment that is required today.
- Robert Ayson is Professor of Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. David Capie is Professor of International Relations and Director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.