CHRIS WHELAN reports that New Zealand’s universities are in excellent shape, but funding needs to keep pace if we are to maintain our high quality and reputation.

Last month I was fortunate to be part of the delegation to Latin America led by tertiary education Minister Stephen Joyce to strengthen education links and explore new opportunities for cooperation.

While preparing for the trip I thought about New Zealand’s universities. How do our systems differ from other university systems? What is expected of us? How well do we meet those expectations?

The Government wants universities to produce employable, work-ready graduates who meet employer demand; to develop and share knowledge and research that contributes to an innovation-driven economy; to contribute to GDP through international education earnings and commercial activity. It also needs engaged citizens who contribute to New Zealand’s social, economic and cultural wellbeing.

Today’s students want a quality qualification that helps them to secure meaningful employment. They also want the skills that will prepare them for a rapidly evolving workplace and jobs that don’t yet exist.

Most employers are looking for graduates with the right attitudes; the ability to work with others, to solve problems, to communicate well and to be able to adapt to a range of challenges and continually changing business needs.

Exceptional performance

New Zealanders expect a quality system that represents an effective and efficient investment of public funding. And under the Education Act, we also have a role as a critic and conscience of society.

So how are we doing? The short answer is that we perform exceptionally well.

Our graduates are well regarded and well employed. Over 4,000 students with research degrees graduate each year– nearly half of them in science, technology and engineering subjects. Graduate unemployment rates are low, averaging around two per cent. Contrary to popular belief, our arts graduates aren’t manning deep fryers at burger joints – in fact only 1.4 per cent work in the retail and hospitality sector.

All courses, even engineering, teach ‘soft’ skills such as critical thinking, active learning, complex problem solving and interpersonal skills, which are highly sought after by employers. These softer skills give graduates the ability and agility to work across different roles, sectors and borders and prepare them for a career in which they will need to continually learn and adapt.

While universities receive just over half their funding from government, they also make a significant economic contribution to the country, collectively contributing more than $1 billion each year to international education, New Zealand’s fifth largest export market. Combined, the economic impact of universities on the New Zealand economy has been estimated at around $7 billion annually.

Unique quality assurance system

We have a robust system for the quality assurance of academic programmes. Through the Committee on University Academic Programmes, all eight universities collectively approve all new programmes and qualifications after a rigorous quality review process. This system where universities collectively review and approve academic programmes is unique in the world.

Because of it, we are the only country where every one of our universities is ranked in the top three per cent of the world’s universities. These rankings measure quality and reputation of factors such as research, teaching and the learning environment.

This means that we are the only country in the world where our young people can enrol in any university they like and will be sure they are receiving a world-class, internationally recognised education.

The non-completion rate for New Zealand students who start a degree and then fail to complete is among the lowest in the world – 50 per cent better than Australia and nearly two-and-a-half times better than the United States. Despite this, we can and are trying to do more in this area – particularly with regard to lifting completion rates for Māori and Pasifika students.

Funding impacting rankings

We have some challenges in maintaining this quality. We are currently delivering this education with one of the lowest levels of funding per student in the developed world. For example, we spend about 70 per cent as much per student as Australia. We are slowly slipping in international rankings because funding has been slowly dropping in real terms over the past couple of decades.

Currently the Government provides just over half the university sector’s income through tuition subsidies and research funding and another 27 per cent of funding comes from student fees.

The funding boost in last month’s budget was welcomed by the university sector. The Budget allocated an additional $112.3 million over four years into the tertiary sector, with special emphasis on university science, engineering, agriculture and some health science courses. Much of this new investment was made possible by the Government’s decision to retain existing funding levels despite a demographic decline in the school leaver population.

However, this increase only represents an increase of around one per cent in funding per student once funding for new student places is deducted. That’s not enough to even stand still at a time when salaries, property costs and library costs are rising at around two to three per cent.

The 2015 Universitas 21 ranking of national higher education systems assessed the resourcing of New Zealand’s university system at 27th out of 50 countries, just ahead of the Ukraine, Spain and Chile. Despite this, it ranked New Zealand well above average on all other metrics and ninth overall when accounting for this country’s level of economic development.

Our ongoing challenge is to retain the quality and reputation of our universities despite historically low levels of resourcing of New Zealand’s tertiary education system, expressed as a percentage of GDP.

Chris Whelan is executive director of Universities New Zealand.


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