Eighteen months ago, Steven Joyce had a warning for the country's universities. If they wanted the Government to be more directive, he was "more than willing", he said. Clearly, the Tertiary Education Minister does not believe his message has been heeded. Therefore, an amendment to the Education Act currently before a select committee seeks to align the universities' operations more to his way of thinking. Predictably, and justifiably, this has been greeted with strong words of protest from the universities.
Like his predecessors in the Clark Government, Mr Joyce believes the universities are not producing enough of the type of graduates that the economy needs. In a high-tech era, he wants more students to be schooled in the sciences, technologies, engineering, maths and information technology. To help achieve this, he plans to reduce the size and change the composition of the university councils. Staff and students would lose their guaranteed places on these governing bodies, which would have between eight and 12 members, down from the present 20. The obvious retort, of course, is that the Cabinet Mr Joyce sits on is a group of 20 which could well benefit from similar culling.
The number of ministerial appointees on university councils would be unchanged, at three for a council of eight and four for a council of 12. Further, and in a similar vein, research funding would be allotted in a way that incentivises universities to gear research more towards industry needs.
Mr Joyce has made no bones about his intentions. People with experience of what business requires would have a far bigger voice on the councils, steering them towards a much greater focus on user needs. Because of the councils' reduced sizes, they would be more nimble and efficient in changing the allocation of resources when there was a change of circumstance. This, according to the minister, is necessary not only for the economy but for the universities, which face stronger competition from Asian countries that are investing heavily in tertiary and research institutions.
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It makes sense, of course, for the skills of many graduates to match the requirements of the economy. But there are limits to how far this should be forced and, indeed, whether that is necessary. Mr Joyce is guilty of being heavy-handed in his tackling of a problem that, in time, will surely prove self-correcting. University councils are astute enough to recognise the skills that are in demand and to know their ranking will fall if they do not provide courses that cater for this.
So, too, are secondary school pupils on the cusp of university. They are generally aware of the areas of the economy that offer the most rewarding career paths. The view they have formed will have been reinforced by careers counsellors, while teachers should have encouraged any inclination they had towards studying engineering, science or maths. In this day and age also, the importance of marrying course and career is underlined by the student loan debt that they will have to clear.
University staff tend to use loftier notions to argue against Mr Joyce's strategy. They talk about university autonomy and academic freedom and their role of teaching long-term skills, not least the ability to think critically. That would be jeopardised if control of the councils fell to Government appointees whose vision did not extend beyond short-term employment goals.
The university staff are right to be worried. Universities' freedom, a status recognised for many centuries, is too precious to be prejudiced by over-the-top government directives without an extremely good reason. Equally, the tailoring of university degrees to national development priorities is not something that should have to be forced in a market economy.