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OPINIONOpinionApril 28, 2023

The government’s ‘she’ll be right’ attitude to universities is failing a generation

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Image: Getty

Tertiary education in New Zealand is facing a crisis, and without immediate government action, its future is in jeopardy, writes Otago students’ association president Quintin Jane.

Sustained underfunding of universities is failing students across the country, and without significant government investment and a refreshed approach to how we view tertiary education in Aotearoa, the sector will remain in crisis. 

Last week, the University of Otago announced a reduction in enrolments resulting in a $60 million hole in its budget. This in turn has led to a voluntary redundancy scheme, which will eventually become involuntary, and will see several hundred academic and professional staff across the university lose their jobs. The University of Otago cites sustained below-inflation funding increases and a strong job market as primary drivers behind the revenue shortfall. 

The university has assured that any student currently enrolled at the University of Otago will be able to complete their course, but otherwise leaves a lot of questions that we simply have no answer to at this stage. What are the implications for students who take a year off their studies? What about those who study part time? Or for those who study a double degree such as law, extending the length of their degree beyond the standard term? 

The University of Otago (Photo: Supplied)

This then leads to questions about education quality. There is no doubt that these redundancies will have serious impacts on the quality of education for students, both current and future. Lower staff-student ratios will reduce the amount of time each student can interact with faculty and cut into activities such as office hours, labs and tutorials, which currently provide invaluable direct support.

Staff in the tertiary sector, academic and professional alike, have faced increasing challenges in recent years. Last year we saw staff across the country taking up pickets in support of better wages and working conditions, in recognition of challenges faced throughout the pandemic. Overwork, stress and burnout are rife in every university department, and only worsened with the challenges Covid-19 brought. Adapting to online learning, hybrid learning and social distancing created undue pressure on the sector. 

Staff have gone above and beyond over the last few years to provide for students and ensure that impacts on academic quality were kept to a minimum. With many of these staff now facing redundancy, workloads for those who remain will only increase. The result of all this? Diminishing education outcomes for students. 

We have a prime minister who is a former students’ association president and also former minister of education. This government needs to step up and accept that the current models of funding are simply unsustainable to safeguard tertiary education in Aotearoa for future generations. Over the last three years, we have seen redundancies at the University of Auckland, Victoria, Otago, AUT, Lincoln, Canterbury, Massey, and even a few at Waikato. Every single university in the country has faced undue financial pressure throughout Covid and the resulting period of high inflation, yet the funding model remains the same.  

While the University of Otago’s downturn in enrolments is concerning, it comes as little surprise to anyone familiar with the sector. Put yourself in the shoes of a current school leaver: you have the choice between a minimum of three years living in what is essentially material hardship and taking on tens of thousands of dollars in debt, or leaving school and entering a government-supported trade or apprenticeship with no debt and a guaranteed salary. Being a student is just not enticing in the current climate. 

Aotearoa has a system for funding tertiary education that cannot deal with shocks, upsets, or even slight downturns in enrolments. The Education and Training Act requires universities to function, budget and plan like a business. The reality is, however, education is not a commodity and certainly isn’t funded like one. This means that, when students make the choice not to come to university, we see university jobs in peril. Why should those who choose to study, or those who have made their careers in academia, be punished because some potential students made the very rational decision not to study? 

Multiple steps need to be taken to address the crisis facing tertiary education. The government needs to make being a student enticing again. This means improving the material conditions of students without further entrenching the student debt epidemic. Methods such as extending the winter energy payment to students (who are currently the only beneficiary group not entitled to the support) would markedly improve the material conditions of hundreds of thousands of students across the country. 

Education funding models also need to be looked at, so that universities aren’t competing for students in order to balance their books. The core funding pool needs to be increased to ensure that if universities have a bad year, if school leavers decide not to come to university, or if international student flows are restricted, staff and students aren’t placed in immediate jeopardy. At the very least, funding increases need to match inflation so that students and staff aren’t footing the bill. 

Without any action from the government, the crisis facing the tertiary sector will continue to worsen. Immediate measures need to be taken to better support students and universities in Aotearoa. The government needs to seriously reconsider how and why we fund students and universities to ensure the long-term sustainability of tertiary education in Aotearoa.

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