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June 4, 2013 | by  | in Features |
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A Brief History of the Univers-ity

The first game of rugby to be played in New Zealand had just taken place. The Government was at war with Māori, and had been for 25 years—roughly half of living memory, given life expectancy was in the mid-50s. The year was 1870, and the first university in New Zealand had just been set up. During your own studies, you are likely to spend between three and five years at university. Though this means you will experience less than three per cent of New Zealand’s university history, students today still compare themselves with those of yesteryear. Salient‘s Chris McIntyre takes a look at just how good the good old days really were.

It is sometimes said that the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. The New Zealand of the mid- to late-19th century was indeed a barely recognisable place. Our fourth Parliament was presiding over the Land Wars—still in full swing—and offered government troops £10 for the delivery of a decapitated head of a Māori chief, and £5 for a regular soldier. Our political system reflected that of the United Kingdom, and reliance on the Empire also pervaded our first universities. The Government established the University of New Zealand (UNZ) in 1870, an organisation which covered the entire country and governed local colleges. UNZ was charged with coordinating examinations and granting degrees, while the various provincial colleges were in charge of tuition. This centralised system remained in place until 1961.

The first such college in New Zealand was Canterbury University College, which affiliated with UNZ in 1873, just as the New Zealand Land Wars had come to a close. The University of Otago, which had been founded in 1869, could not grant degrees under the new UNZ-centric system, as it wasn’t affiliated. Despite this fact, its three professorial staff began teaching in 1871, much to the ire of Canterbury academics. Otago was a “complete sham”, according to Canterbury’s Henry Tancred—a review glowing in comparison to Otago parliamentarian Alexander Bathgate’s assessment: calling UNZ a “wretched abortion”. Keen to get in on the inter-provincial action, Auckland University College and Victoria University College both opened shortly thereafter, in 1883 and 1899 respectively.

Thus the turn of the 19th century saw New Zealand, at that stage with a population breathing down the neck of a million, supporting no less than four modest universities. These were New Zealand universities in a geographic sense much more than in an academic sense. Many academic staff were from overseas, and staff had little to no control over the degree programmes and the content taught therein. Research was limited, and New Zealand’s academics and academic institutions were very much to be seen and not heard. Incredibly, it was not until 1939 that university examination papers were marked by New Zealanders, in New Zealand—until 1939, papers were shipped to England, marked by British professors, and shipped back home.

Through the 20th century, the British mould in which New Zealand universities had incubated began to crack. The First Labour Government came to power in 1935, altering university funding both in volume and in delivery. They established the University Grants Committee (UGC) in 1948, which they funded in block. The UGC distributed funds to colleges, which were able to spend the funding as they saw fit. This financial independence from central UNZ governance was an early indication of what was to come.

A committee was set up by the Second Labour Government in 1959, to evaluate all facets of the university system. When the committee reported back in the early 1960s, they recommended wide-ranging changes which affected students, staff, and the institutions themselves. Requirements for entry were altered, enrolment patterns more carefully monitored, and students’ positions subsidised. The salaries of academic staff were revised, and staff-to-student ratios reconsidered. Most notably, the committee recommended the structure of university governance be decentralised. In 1961, the Second National Government implemented all the committee’s suggested changes. The changes were extensive, and saw the UNZ dissolved after close to a century of monopolisation on higher thought. Colleges became independent universities, the final nail in the coffin for colonial oversight of tertiary education. Universities were for the first time being governed by their own independent charters, and with bulk funding from the UGC, they had more freedom than ever. The changes of 1961 were the genesis of the system we study under today.

The key cause of this systemic change was students. Enrolments had bulged, increasing from less than 5000 per annum in the early post-WWI years to over 11,500 by 1950—this was the first sign of New Zealanders’ voracious appetite for higher education. The rate of increase in university enrolments was over four times greater than the rate of increase in the national population, for no apparent reason. GDP growth was nothing special, hovering at a modest two per cent, and it’s also worth noting that being a student afforded no advantage with regard to evading military conscription, a reality of the time. In simple terms, optimism for the future was high and tertiary education represented a chance for a better life to many. In this sense, the explosion in enrolments perhaps reflected the dire state of the first half of the 20th century.


We students today like to think we have it rough relative to the students of the past, but in this regard we refer largely to the baby boomers. Even earlier generations did not have such ready access to university study, with tertiary qualifications far less prolific than they are today and much harder to attain. From the outset, students paid to study. Costs were high, but not prohibitively so, as many students worked part-time and could support themselves. In 1925, more of New Zealand’s 3850 university students studied part-time than did full-time (54 per cent to 32 per cent, teachers’-college students excluded). Government bursaries, or scholarships, had been introduced in 1907, but these were limited in scope and did little to allow the majority of students the luxury of full-time study, still an elite pursuit.

The medley of part-time study and part-time work meant degrees took much longer than they do today. I would be flattering myself to think many Bachelor of Commerce students have read this far, but if you have, this next example may interest you: between 1953 and 1959, 115 students gained a BCom at Victoria University College (note that between 2006 and 2012, over 6100 students graduated with a BCom from Victoria University). Of those 115 students, only one—yes, one solitary student—completed the degree within three years, and the average completion time was eight-and-a-half years.

The free ride through university we associate with our parents’ generation only originated in 1962, when a comprehensive bursary system was introduced. The system covered the majority of students’ fees and accommodation costs, and this allowed students to enrol full-time and not have to work to support their study. As a result, full-time enrolment rates doubled in under a decade. By 1990, annual enrolments hit 78,919—a 385 per cent increase from 1960, which was over two-and-a-half times the increase in the population. Thousands more people were enrolling in University study, and they were doing so courtesy of the taxpayer.

As more and more people achieved a tertiary qualification, a university degree no longer set you apart to the same extent it used to. Employers enjoyed an increasing glut of qualified workers, a phenomenon of which we may be currently experiencing the apogée, with tertiary enrolments peaking at or near all-time highs each year. This means that today, it is more difficult to find a job which reflects your qualifications, given there are few such jobs and relatively high numbers of qualified people. Another effect of increased tertiary enrolments was the increasing financial unsustainability of the bursary programme. Increasing university access was the beginning of the end in some ways; the benefits offered at little or no opportunity cost to prospective students meant that uptake of study was greater than ever before. The Government was willing to invest in the sum skills of the population, and with so much to gain at so little cost, people were happy to accept this investment. The way was always paved for the programme’s success.


So, what changed? Why are we now saddled with debt, and likely to graduate with little or no certainty regarding job prospects? The tertiary-education policy of providing cheap tuition had relied on the assumption the public stood to gain from such an investment. Somewhere along the way, it was decided private gains outweighed these public gains and the people gaining from qualifications—students—should henceforth be responsible for more of the costs associated with getting those qualifications. After nearly three decades of unprecedented plain sailing, tertiary education was not spared from the waves of neoliberal reform which characterised the late 1980s under the Fourth Labour Government.

Fees increased dramatically in 1989, a one-two punch when combined with the replacement of bursaries by the Student Allowance. As you know, Student-Allowance eligibility is means-tested; no longer can just anyone expect a free ride through university. Instead of reverting to the prior model of balancing study and work, students began to take on loans to study full-time. Indeed, the fee rises had been such that part-time work would barely cover study and the associated costs. The Student Loan Scheme allowed students to borrow money to cover these costs, and between its introduction in 1992 and June 2010, nearly one million people had taken out some form of student loan. By 2013, the balance of these loans reached $13 billion—approximately seven per cent of GDP.

Even though Student Loans became interest-free, and even though the Loan enabled students to put themselves in a position to earn up to 48 per cent more than someone unqualified, debt is seen as a pitfall of the current system. What the neoliberal reforms meant for universities is apparent to the average student, but no less of an upheaval—especially in the wider context of the university system since 1870. You’re living through them right now regardless of your outlook on their fairness, and it’s likely your children will live through them too.

The fee increases were not the only change to come from the neoliberal agenda: in 1988, the Government commissioned a report on the tertiary sector. Like the 1961 commission which, among other things, decentralised university governance, the 1988 report recommended major structural changes, all of which were accepted and implemented in the Education Amendment Act 1990. The Act encouraged competition between universities, removed the monopoly universities had on degrees to allow polytechnics, wananga and other providers to offer Bachelor programmes, and dictated all institutions would become independent legal entities with individual charters, led by a chief executive.

121 years after the Government offered payment for the heads of Māori chiefs and warriors, the Government began offering universities money per head enrolled. The Act bulk-funded institutions by a formula based on the number of enrolments, a funding mechanism now called the Student Achievement Component, for which $2.04 billion was budgeted in the 2013 Budget. This saw the end of the First Labour Government’s UGC. Enrolment-based funding exacerbated the problems caused by the degree-centric career pathway model into which we were all indoctrinated by high-school career advisors. It’s very likely you were encouraged to come to university by teachers, advisors, your parents, et al, as a way to get ahead; to ensure you made something of your life. Universities also gained from this mantra, by enrolling more students—until 2008, when student numbers were effectively capped by then-Minister of Tertiary Education Anne Tolley—and the perceived mutual benefit between students and universities grew enrolments despite the cuts to bursaries and increased fees. Increased growth in enrolments continued and in 2010, 179,013 students enrolled in universities. You’re probably one of these 179,013 students; you’ve travelled the pathway recommended to you and now you’re here, studying like they wanted you to, and you’re looking at maybe decades of debt and uncertain job prospects. When you wonder ‘why am I doing this?’, you can thank the perfect storm of enrolment-based funding and the tertiary imperative.


New Zealand’s university sector has changed almost beyond recognition since its origins over 140 years ago. If the past is a foreign country, it is that of our Majesty. British academic custom not only informed our early universities, it governed them in a manner so inextricable they were barely New Zealand universities at all. Various governments have gradually developed the New Zealand university system, allowing us to develop our own academic cultures, customs, values and epistemologies. The neoliberal reforms saw universities become competitive institutions structured like companies, a theme which continues through today’s increasing and ongoing orientation of the tertiary sector towards business.

Students today are not increasingly oriented towards business, but towards debt. We are unlikely to see a return to the days when acquiring knowledge was valued as an end in itself, and even more unlikely to see a return to the golden days our parents’ generation enjoyed. The 30-odd years sandwiched between the hard-working, long-studying generation to which our grandparents belonged, and the quick-finishing, long-borrowing generation to which we belong came the happy coincidence of free study and an employment market with a fantastic capacity for absorbing qualified graduates.

What form the changes of the future will take is uncertain, but a contraction of the university system is probably the most likely reflex to the status quo. According to the Government, Student Loan and Allowance programmes are bordering on unsustainable, and our degrees are worth less and less—when will the writing on the wall become too bold to ignore? What this contraction will mean for future generations is unknowable—will our access to education be envied by our children in the same way we envy our parents’, or will the end to debt-culture built on degrees for degrees’ sake mean they buy their first home earlier? My advice would be to make the most of this access while you still can, but too many people doing precisely that is the current problem. In lieu of that, go out and get a degree, look for a job, maybe study some more, if you like. Along, of course, with everybody else.

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