The Productivity Commission's New Models of Tertiary Education report, including 77 findings and 49 recommendations, presents a slightly modified suite of proposals to the draft released late last year.
It drops the idea of a student voucher system, but adheres to the narrative that the New Zealand tertiary education system needs to innovate, diversify and embrace the free-market philosophy endemic in our public institutions.
The report rightly suggests that publicly funded institutions have a responsibility to deliver both public good and measurable outcomes, but it pushes the latter to the extreme, representing tertiary education as a commodity purely for individual benefit.
Unfortunately, this report takes a dangerously narrow view of education and, if the Government supports its key recommendations, would see New Zealand further lurch towards neoliberal irrelevance.
There are some recommendations that are difficult to challenge. That students should be able to easily navigate through a complex system makes sense, as is the idea that career advice to young people entering tertiary study needs rationalisation.
The observation that the system is burdened by a high degree of central control and the suggestion that providers use a proportion of their public funding to run "experimental courses", allowing a nimbler system of supply and demand, are equally welcome.
The proposal that University Entrance be abolished, giving universities the ability to set their own entrance requirements, may be a good move, but odd given that the New Zealand Qualifications Authority is currently conducting a review of University Entrance.
The report makes useful suggestions on how providers can be incentivised to innovate, and via a new Tertiary Education Strategy, "add value" to students. The proposals regarding smoother credit transfer and articulation arrangements between providers, and the proposition that new funding approaches should not disadvantage those providers already embracing innovative delivery models, such as online learning, are logical.
But while the commission's call for shorter and faster qualifications to meet industry needs sounds appealing, it reduces tertiary education to a tradable product, ignoring that learning over a three- to four-year period provides students with reasoning, citizenship and "life" skills. Sadly, the larger societal benefits of education are lost in this report.
The commission's findings severely miss the mark in other key areas. It maintains its view that more providers should enter the tertiary education system (we need fewer, not more, providers) and that any provider should be able to apply to use the terms "university" or "polytechnic". The report also fails to acknowledge that our national university system is already comparatively efficient and effective, as borne out by international comparison.
There are three parts of this report that warrant closer scrutiny. The first is the assumption that the Committee of University Academic Programmes (CUAP) is responsible for stifling universities' innovation. This misconstrues the high-trust collegial peer review process overseen by CUAP on behalf of the New Zealand Vice-Chancellors' Committee.
The commission's overly simplistic solution to an undefined "problem" is to argue that "competent institutions [universities] should self-accredit". Self-accreditation, like a yearning for independence, is a case of "be careful what you wish for".
Look across the Tasman to see how this plays out, with each university weighed down by costly systems of internal compliance. And it is fanciful to think we could have self-accreditation without any sector-wide regulation. The current process CUAP oversees, alongside the Academic Quality Agency, delivers better outcomes than one governed by a heavy-handed regulator aimed at managing rogue providers.
The second area of concern is the commission's questioning that degrees should be taught by people active in research.
The "research-teaching nexus" is a defining characteristic of universities; to abandon this is to lose the idea of a university. The commission does not go that far, but based on its view that the model of the "teacher as researcher" may work only for some students, they land on a recommendation removing this requirement for non-university providers.
The logic is that this will promote differentiation between providers and offer wider choices for students. A more sensible delineation would be to allow universities to be the sole providers of degree-level study.
Finally, the commission recommends reviewing the Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF) to reduce institutional bias towards research.
The PBRF should be reviewed, but any review of PBRF should focus on the criteria employed in this research assessment exercise, not simply consider the PBRF in relation to teaching.
Hopefully, this report will trigger debate about the purpose as well as the provision of tertiary education in this election year.
Let's also hope that discussion is not hampered by a focus on how universities and others ought to be funded and we remember that market solutions are not necessarily the best responses to improving outcomes for learners (and providers) in our very efficient tertiary education system.
- Professor Giselle Byrnes is Massey University's Assistant Vice-Chancellor, Research, Academic and Enterprise.