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October 11, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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A balancing act? An interview with Vice-Chancellor Pat Walsh

2010 has been a year of significant change in the tertiary education sector. In January, Anne Tolley was replaced as Tertiary Education Minister by Steven Joyce. Many suspected that this signalled that things were in for a shake-up, and the National government’s budget this year confirmed this. Joyce has reiterated that there is no more funding available to universities and they must learn to live within their means. This restricted funding environment has presented Victoria, along with New Zealand’s seven other universities, with significant challenges in terms of how to manage enrolment numbers and ensure a high quality of teaching and research is maintained. Salient Editor Sarah Robson talked to Vice Chancellor Pat Walsh about how Victoria has dealt with some of these challenges, and where the university is placed heading into 2011.

The role of Vice-Chancellor is an important one, they are the university’s academic and administrative head; the chief executive, if you will. The Vice-Chancellor is the guy responsible for ensuring the university carries its statutory and contractual functions in teaching, research and community service. At Vic, Pat Walsh is the big cheese, the one who fronts the media when admissions are closed, or when fees are increased. Perhaps because the media limelight is only shone on the Vice-Chancellor when decisions are made that appear to adversely affect students, there is an impression of aloofness, or that university management doesn’t really care about the most important stakeholders in the tertiary education sector—students.

Walsh has been at Vic since 1981. Before being made the head of what is now the Victoria Management School in the mid-1990s, Walsh was your average academic. He headed the management school for six years before being made Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of Commerce. Walsh was appointed Vice Chancellor in 2005, replacing Stuart McCutcheon, now the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Auckland.

Heading into 2011, Walsh says the three crucial issues facing the tertiary sector, and Victoria more specifically, are “the issues that have challenged us for some time”. These issues, he says, stem from the question of funding.

“[Firstly] the real value of government funding continues to decline. Secondly, I think responding to the quite reasonable expectations of accountability in terms of performance, and that’s in research and in learning and teaching, and in the quality of the student experience. Thirdly, I think the relationships, both internal of course, but external relationships with stakeholders—I think that it’s absolutely vital that a university has really strong relationships, partnerships, collaborations, whether it’s research or with the City Council or with international agencies, because without that you’re an island and I think we’ve done well in that regard.”

Stemming the flow

Next year will see the implementation of a system of managed enrolment, whereby students must not only attain University Entrance, but also meet the guaranteed entry score for admittance. Walsh says that managed enrolment is a consequence of the funding situation.

“It came upon us of course because of the capped funding and therefore the capped number of students. So we are funded for a certain number of students and if we take more than that, then those students are unfunded,” he explains.

Walsh says there are two crucial factors involved in the issue.

“One is universities have been saying for years, for as long as I can remember, that as the real value of government funding declines, there’s a threat to the quality of education. And if we enrol hundreds or thousands, as we could probably, of unfunded students, then I think we’re saying well, actually we don’t care about quality, the quality of what we are providing to students who are enrolled. So it’s driven by quality, it’s driven by the funding situation, but the response is a concern about quality and that’s really the driver for managed enrolment.”

In May, the University Council decided to close admissions for the second trimester. Walsh says that a
number of options were looked into, before a final decision was made. Ultimately, an obligation to current
students won out.

“We looked at all those options. We could have simply shut down the third trimester, we could have done various creative things with the students that are currently enrolled. But we felt we, for a start, we felt we had an obligation to students who are currently enrolled and many of them had enrolled for the first trimester uncertain about what they wanted to take in the second trimester and we didn’t feel that we should not close off that option, because we have an obligation to them. The summer trimester is an important trimester, we’ve cut back on it, but we found it was still important that it go ahead, many students use it to catch up, some academic staff sometimes use it to run an experimental course to see how it goes. So we felt that on balance, the shutting down of enrolments in the second trimester was, however unpalatable, the cleanest way of doing it.”

Victoria isn’t the only university to implement these sorts of measures. Walsh agrees that this inevitably limits access to tertiary education across the board.

“And I think that’s undesirable,” he says.

“I’ve always favoured a system whereby those who meet the entry standard are able to be admitted, and we no longer have that and I think in terms of social and economic opportunities, social mobility, I’m disappointed with that. So it will limit access to universities. I know that perhaps one of the positive consequences will be that the average ability of students, the average quality will rise, and that’s a positive
consequence, but in doing that we do run the risk of not admitting students who do have the potential to succeed. I find that unfortunate.”

Juggling teaching and research

Walsh says there are always pressures on academic staff to juggle teaching and research, “but I do believe the two can be balanced”.

“I think that we’ve got evidence of that with the many staff, the great majority of staff, who do successfully
combine research and teaching. And the two are not always in opposition—the research activity of staff contributes to what they teach as well. It can be a challenge in terms of time pressures, but I think that it can be managed.”

The introduction of the performance based research fund (PBRF) has been a point of contention since its
implementation, and concerns have been raised about whether it has lead to a more competitive staff environment. Walsh however takes a more positive view.

“Well I think everyone can point to aspects of the PBRF that they disagree with, but I do think that the PBRF has had a positive impact on universities, it has focused universities—and by that I mean both management and staff and certainly councils—on the quality of research, it has lead to an improvement
in the quality of research and although there are some undesirable features, we could all list some of those, on balance I think it’s had a positive impact.”

Walsh asserts that Victoria has been maximising research opportunities in recent years.

“We have, over the last five or six years, made a number of important steps to improve research,” he says.

“We have greatly increased the budget for postgraduate scholarships—it’s gone up by a couple of hundred per cent, so we have many more Masters and PhD scholarships and I regard that as one of the most important contributors to an active research culture. The more postgraduate thesis students you have,
the livelier the research culture,” he says.

“We have greatly increased our internal research budget, so the university research fund is larger than
it has been. We have established the office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research, which didn’t previously exist, to provide strategic direction to research and we have established a Faculty of Graduate Research, we have what we call the portfolio advisers at the Faculties helping people with external research
grants. So our research infrastructure is much stronger, the amount of funding that we’ve allocated to research is much larger. I should also mention the increases in the library budget which have been driven by teaching and research and have benefited both, and of course we have had an internal PBRF exercise, end of 2008, beginning of 2009, and now we’re following up on that in terms of addressing research
performance issues around the university.”

In this year’s budget, National announced the introduction of a component of funding for universities based on student performance. Walsh says that this move is one universities have seen coming, though “it might put more pressure on students”.

“The educational performance funding, as the government calls it, is something we’ve seen coming for some
time and I think it’s entirely reasonable… for there to be accountability for performance, given the amount of public funding we receive,” he says.

“The particular form it has taken is something that we now have to understand, and at least understand the
data, so why have we got X per cent of students completing their courses, and Y per cent completing their qualifications and why are we higher or lower than other universities on some of these. And we just need to understand the things that contribute to those outcomes and we need to do the things that we can to improve. Some of them might be as straightforward as simplifying degree structures, for example. It might
be one of the reasons we have some students find it difficult to complete their qualification, is that the degrees are so complicated. So there’s a number of things that we can do which might not necessarily put more pressure on people at all.”

Supporting students or institutions?

Universities New Zealand, the collective voice of the country’s eight universities, put forward the proposition earlier this year that the reinstatement of interest on student loans should be investigated by the government. This is a proposition Walsh agrees with.

“I do because I think in a capped funding—the argument for interest-free student loans was developed at a time when there was not capped funding for universities. So every student who enrolled attracted funding—that’s not the case anymore. So we’re in a situation now where we’re having to turn away students and the reason we’re having to turn away students is because of limited funding. Some of that funding that we could be receiving is going to interest-free loans. So I think there’s a choice to make about whether we think
it’s a better use of public funds, public money, to provide interest-free loans to enrolled students, or to provide more places at universities for students who would otherwise be turned away.”

Some of the reason for the focus on student support is a “perception of electoral advantage,” Walsh says.

“The Labour government introduced it in the 2005 election because they thought it would be popular and it
was, and in fact Michael Cullen said it won the election for them, and the National party decided to run with that in 2008 because it feared the electoral consequences of changing it. So it’s now embedded in the system and it’s going to be very difficult to change it.”

Compounding the funding pressures has been the fee maxima policy, where universities have been limited by how much they can raise the fees students are charged. Walsh says this policy has had a particularly significant effect on Victoria.

“If you go back ten years, the government of the day introduced a freeze on fees. At that time, Victoria was caught with the policy that was implemented with fees that were low relative to other universities. Then the fee maxima regime was introduced, which said you could increase it by up to a certain amount, but because we were starting from a lower base, we never caught up, so we suffer a significant funding disadvantage, particularly in humanities and education, and we calculate that we’re about two and a half
million dollars worse off than some of the other universities, so it does place us at a disadvantage.”

The University Council recently increased fees for 2011 by four per cent, the maximum allowed under the government’s annual maximum fee movement, announced in this year’s budget. Walsh thinks that having
some limits on fee increases is not unreasonable.

“I think that it’s reasonable to have a policy framework that does put some limits on fees, and I don’t have a problem with that. I think it is unreasonable to have a policy framework that entrenches disadvantage for a couple of universities, we’re not the only one, a couple of universities compared with others. To use the Treasury’s favourite phrase, I think there should be a level playing field and at the moment it’s not.”

VSM: not just VUWSA’s Problem?

The prospect of voluntary student membership (VSM) is a concern for the university.

“We’re opposed to it, and that’s what we said in our submission. In summary, we think that students’ associations play a really important role, I know that they get things wrong and there’s criticism of them at times—sometimes entirely justified—just as there’s justified criticism of what universities do from time to time. But on balance, students’ associations play an important and constructive role, they provide significant and valuable services, many of them not visible to people from the outside, look at academic grievances for example, the representation function which is really important, and the role that clubs and societies play in helping to foster a sense of community,” Walsh says.

“We believe that students’ associations play an important role and particularly here over the last four or
five years, we have really worked to try and develop a partnership approach with the students’ association—we disagree on the obvious things—but around the running of the Student Union Building, the Hub project, the development of the Boyd Wilson Field and in other areas as well, we’ve got a really positive partnership that we think makes Victoria a better place. Voluntary student membership will reduce the revenue that the students’ association receives, no question about that, will therefore reduce the services they can provide, will limit their capacity to play an active and constructive role in the university and so we’re opposed to it.”

Walsh asserts that the university is beginning to look into contingency plans in the event the Education Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill is passed into law.

“[We’re] just trying to think well, if the students’ association can’t do this, whatever it is, should we do it?
Recognising that we’re not going to get any more money… so if we decide to do something that VUWSA… currently does, then we’re going to have to stop doing something else, and that’s going to be some tough choices there.”

Walsh doesn’t think that VSM will entirely destroy the student culture or experience at Victoria.

“I think that it’s going to pose some real challenges and there may be some ways of addressing it, but we need to think those through. We look at the student experience in Auckland, where student membership is voluntary, so we can learn from what they have done, that there are things that we can do to address those problems. I’m not saying that it’s going to be doom and gloom in terms of the quality of the student
experience, but it’s going to be harder.”

It’s fairly clear that Victoria University is going to be facing some challenges heading into the future. Despite his, Walsh remains positive.

“Although the environment is really challenging,Victoria University I think is in pretty good heart, in pretty good shape,” he says.

“We’re feeling pretty optimistic about the future, not blindly optimistic, not complacently optimistic, but I think we’re travelling fairly well.”

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Editor for 2010, politics nerd, panda fan and three-time award-winning student journalist.

Comments (2)

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  1. smackdown says:

    best thing about this feature? pat walsh’s face will sit here on the salient website all summer long

    summer time with pat :-)

  2. Haha! I remember when Patty boy streaked through the quad! Good times!

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