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October 7, 2013 | by  | in News |
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University Freed From Student Shackles

Universities will be able to cut students out of decision-making at the highest levels if the Government gets its way.

The Tertiary Education Strategy draft outlines the Government’s strategic direction for tertiary education over the next five years. It was released at Victoria last Wednesday by Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment Steven Joyce.

If successful, the proposal would remove compulsory student representation from Councils and reduce the number of members. Councils are universities’ highest governing bodies, and, among other things, are responsible for setting fees. Under the draft strategy, Victoria’s University Council would go from 20 members down to 12, and Victoria University would have the option to remove the two student representative positions and the four staff representatives. Councils would still be able to choose their chair and deputy chairpersons.

There would be no corresponding decrease in the number of Council members appointed by the Government. While the four ministerial positions currently mean only a fifth of the Council is appointed by the Minister, the changes would mean one-third of Council was Government-appointed.

Joyce stated the proposed changes would make councils more flexible, more adaptable and “nimbler”, and allow New Zealand universities to get an edge on overseas universities.

“Our universities also need to move more quickly to respond to areas of high occupational demand, attract more international students, and strategically invest to enhance their particular areas of expertise and competitive advantage,” said Joyce.

Criticism has come from a number of quarters, with students’ associations, the Tertiary Education Union, and opposition parties all staunchly opposed to students’ possible removal from Councils. Worries circle on the future of representation and universities becoming, in essence, companies.

New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations (NZUSA) Executive Director Alistair Shaw described the proposed changes as “outrageous”, saying universities should engage with students, not follow a business model.

“Every decent university in the world has staff and students sitting around the table deciding what the focus of that university should be,” said Shaw.

VUWSA President Rory McCourt called the changes “misguided and undemocratic”, saying it was not too much to ask that Victoria’s 23,000 students had a seat on Council. McCourt said student representation makes for a better Council,  and was disappointed Joyce had not met with the Tertiary Education Union or NZUSA for the last two years.

“This Minister and this Government have increasingly ignored students and staff, and now they want University Councils to do the same.

“Students on these Councils provide an important reality check, giving real feedback from the coalface. It’s important that any governing body gets a range of views to make the right decisions,” said McCourt.

Tertiary Education Union secretary Sharn Riggs said the changes would jeopardise the social role of universities at the expense of a business focus.

“Basically, it’s setting up a model of ensuring that all of our tertiary education institutions now are simply businesses, that they have no other connection other than being run as a business and delivering as a business,” said Riggs.

Labour’s Associate Tertiary Education spokesperson Megan Woods said “stripping away democratic governance” was “not the answer”, adding that the proposed changes went against best practice. Woods accused Joyce of reducing the size of University Councils so that his appointees would have more power. Labour leader David Cunliffe said the changes would mean students and staff lost direct access to decision-making.

“Frankly, I just don’t accept the logic which I understand Mr Joyce has used … it simply doesn’t follow,” said Cunliffe.

Consultation on the proposal is open until 5 pm, Friday 15 November. Information on how to submit can be found on the Ministry of Education website.

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