By now the Auckland public will be well aware of the anger that has erupted over the University of Auckland's planned closure of specialist libraries belonging to its schools of Fine Arts, Music, Architecture and Planning, prompting the further fear that (as has regrettably happened in the past) "unwanted" books will then be burned.

The vandalism involved in book-burning (a practice more often associated with repressive autocratic regimes) is bad enough in itself. Even more serious are the consequences of the closures for undergraduate learning and graduate research in the affected disciplines.

The argument that books can nowadays be replaced by on-line information simply reflects the blinkered ignorance of technocrats and administrators who do not understand that in the arts and humanities books offer a different and deeper kind of education.

These libraries service teachers and researchers in the city, nationally and internationally. To downsize such unique collections will lower the standing of the university as a repository of knowledge.

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Unfortunately the proposed library closures are not an isolated phenomenon. Rather this is a symptom of a much deeper sickness afflicting universities in this neo-liberal age that began in the mid-1980s, when vice-chancellors were formally redefined as CEOs (since, as the appalling mantra went, "Education is a business like any other").

The effect has been to transform what were once relatively democratic self-governing institutions into autocratic corporations in which virtually all power is vested in vice-chancellors and the managerial hierarchy appointed to do their bidding.

This change has in turn enabled an ideologically driven shift that has systematically devalued the areas of intellectual, social, political, and cultural inquiry that encourage students to think deeply about what it means to be human, in favour of a crassly instrumentalist idea of education that favours only practical "applied" knowledge.

Parents have been encouraged to believe, in spite of plentiful evidence to the contrary, that their children's future success is dependent on their commitment to purely career-oriented courses; while students' own choices have been distorted by the over-emphasis on so-called STEM subjects in high schools, and by a National Standards regime that promotes crudely measurable forms of knowledge at the expense of critical thinking.

The universities themselves, pressured by the steady decline in government funding, have done little to combat such trends. Declining enrolments in arts faculties have meant once flourishing departments have been ruthlessly downsized; formerly independent disciplines have become "programmes" and amalgamated into large amorphous "schools", whose only real purpose is to enable more efficient "line management".

The effect on students has been predictably terrible. Shortage of staff has resulted in the axing of numerous courses, drastically reducing student choice, while in the Faculty of Arts, 30 has been declared an allowable maximum for so-called small-group tutorials -- a number which, in any university in the UK or the US, would be regarded as decent-sized lecture class.

For academic staff, the exaggerated emphasis placed on so-called "research outputs" as the principal criterion for professional advancement, has meant publication has tended to displace teaching as the core of professional responsibility.

It was telling that when Auckland's Arts I building was "refurbished" a few years ago, it was (management proudly insisted) specifically designed to "discourage students from visiting staff offices without an appointment" – a complete contradiction of everything an institution of learning should stand for.

There are, unfortunately, many other symptoms of such educational degradation, including the recent demolition of the Maidment and Musgrove Theatres, originally designed to provide a vibrant performance centre on the campus, the proposed restructuring of the Music School which, through the loss of distinguished senior staff, threatens to destroy its own widely admired performance tradition, and a loss of a whole cadre of senior staff from the Law School.

All of this has meant that, even as fees kept rising, students have been getting less and less for their money.

The new Government's decision to gradually abolish undergraduate fees, by countering the neo-liberal idea of tertiary education as a "private good", is a step in the right direction but unless it is accompanied by serious investment and a through re-think of what universities are all about, it will probably only hasten a decline brought about by already inadequate funding.

It would be idle to pretend vice-chancellors have an easy job, or that they are not strapped for cash. But it's hard not to feel indignant at the University of Auckland's pursuit of an ambitious building programme in Newmarket when in vital areas the core business of teaching and learning is being systematically run down. In the last analysis, universities consist of people not monuments.

There now needs to be a broad public conversation about how New Zealand is going to support and foster its arts and cultural heritage, its taonga and ahurea. Such decisions are too important to be left to managers for whom the financial bottom line appears to be all that matters.

• Tom Bishop (Professor of English), Brian Boyd (Distinguished Professor of English), Wystan Curnow (Emeritus Professor of English), Roger Horrocks (Emeritus Professor of Film and Media Studies), Witi Ihimaera (Emeritus Professor of English), Macdonald Jackson (Emeritus Professor of English), Michael Neill (Emeritus Professor of English), Peter Simpson (Former Head of English), Karl Stead (Emeritus Professor of English), Albert Wendt (Emeritus Professor of English).