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September 12, 2011 | by  | in Opinion |
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Laying Down The Law – Harsh Truths

It’s difficult to pin down exactly what Universities are and what they do.

On the one hand, they provide a place where students can learn new things, gain new knowledge and equip themselves not just with skills, but with a career. On the other, they are the locus of an intellectual community, one that contributes to what we think, feel and care about.

Those two objectives are often in competition, but both are a priority. As a consequence Government has always had an odd relationship with its universities.
Universities used to be set up by their own Act of Parliament, but now they are Crown Entities. To an extent governments can control what they can or can not do. But they are also functionally independent. While the government pays (most) of the bills, universities still have the power, and some would say the responsibility, to call any government out on its bullshit.

Tertiary organisations are set up by the Education Act 1989. Its an incredibly powerful and wide-ranging piece of law. It establishes the rules around universities, NZQA, the Tertiary Education Commission, and even the membership of student associations such as VUWSA. That list is just a snapshot. The Education Act covers a lot, it does a lot, and it’s complicated.

The Education Act acts a gatekeeper on when a new university can be created. Section 162(4)(a) outlines the things a university must have in order to be a proper university. The requirements are conceptually powerful. They include: a focus on intellectual independence, the interdependence of research and teaching according to international standards, acting as a repository of knowledge and expertise—and crucially, acting as a critic and conscience of society. Its very difficult to fulfill all these requirements, and as the case of Attorney-General v Unitec Institute of Technology demonstrated, some governments are firmly against the idea of there being any new universities at all.

It the requirement that universities act as a critic and conscience of society that has proven to be the most contentious. By law, universities are expected to question controversial things. That, and the enshrinement of academic freedom in section 161 of Act, puts universities in a powerful position to get all up in other people’s business.

Take for example the recent case of Margaret Mutu, head of the University of Auckland’s Maori Studies Department. Last Monday she came out in support of a Department of Labour report, which asserted that Maori are more likely to be anti-immigration than any other racial group.

Much of the media reaction to her comments has focused on what she said—and for good reason, her comments were pretty inflammatory. But there has been little attention given to why she could say what she said. Unlike the racist rantings of Kyle Chapman, former head of the New Zealand National Front, Mutu was using her position of academic authority to challenge New Zealand’s view of race relations.

Personally I don’t agree with her, but I was intrigued by what her comments achieved. In a way she was doing exactly what the Education Act required of her. She was acting as a critic and conscience, and was using her academic freedom to put forward a fairly challenging point of view. The senior management of the University of Auckland couldn’t do much to quiet her and in fact have publicly backed her up.

What this demonstrates is that the law actually puts academics in a far more powerful position than students realise, and also perhaps more than some academics realise themselves.

Universities have always been the places where radical ideas have been fermented. It was the protests and then massacre of students and academics at the University of Tehran that sparked the Iranian revolution of 1979. The ideas developed at the University of Chicago in the 1980s changed the face of global economics and politics. Closer to home, organisation against the Springbok tours was located in and around our universities. Margaret Mutu’s contribution pales in comparison, but is part of the same concept; universities are here to do more than simply churn out the next generation of lawyers, accountants, and Briscoes Managers.

But the legal framework that universities operate under creates difficult tensions. Although they are functionally independent from government, the vast majority of a university’s bottom line comes from the taxpayer purse (either through direct funding or student fees). This means that Vice Chancellors must always be walking a tightrope. Part of their mission is to push the boundaries, but push it too much and they may find themselves wanting in the next budget round.

However, a university community should never shy away from vocal expression. Margaret Mutu’s statements were brash, but they were also comparatively rare. Self-censorship in any large organisation is perilous, even career-damaging. But academics have a responsibility to air harsh truths. Perhaps they need to take a page from Mutu’s book and remember that according to the law they are expected to speak their minds.

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About the Author ()

Conrad is a very grumpy boy. When he was little he had a curl in the middle of his forehead. When he was good, he was moderately good, but when he was mean he was HORRID. He likes guns, bombs and shooting doves. He can often be found reading books about Mussolini and tank warfare. His greatest dream is to invent an eighteen foot high mechanical spider, which has an antimatter lazer attached to its back.

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