Threats to the quality of Tertiary education in New Zealand

We are writing to the leaders and spokespersons on education of all the political parties currently represented in Parliament, and to other commentators on science education in New Zealand, to voice our concern about the critical state of tertiary education in New Zealand, particularly in science and technology, and what we fear will be its continuing deterioration.

The last nine years of the current government have seen a steady decrease in the funding per student, with a corresponding rise in student fees. Competition between institutions has meant that institutions have generally raised student fees by a minimum amount, and tried to cover any shortfalls through efficiency gains. At the same time, externally driven costs, forsuch things as insurance, ACC and other regulatory compliance costs, have increased, as have cost increases due to inflation and, lately, adverse exchange movements.

The government's announced EFTS funding formula for 2000 had, as one of its elements, the re-directing of funding into research degrees. This will have a severely detrimental effect on Honours (4th year) courses in our Science Faculty which, although they contain a substantial research component, will be deemed to be taught courses and suffer a loss of about $4000 per EFTS. This loss will offset any gains we might have made through the increased EFTS funding for Masters and PhD students. Moreover, the costs of our 4th year courses will become dangerously close to being uneconomic, as an increase in student fees to cover the loss would be a severe disincentive to pursue a research career and result in a sharp, and counterproductive, decrease in enrolments. In Honours, and other 4th year programmes, students move from being taught to learning how to do research and learn for themselves. The programmes are the essential qualifications for entry to higher research degrees. If the funding policy deters students from doing Honours it will thus result in a decrease in the number of science and technology graduates with research training, which is contrary to the policy's stated goals.

We note also that the diversion of education funding from the public to the private sector is bad for science and technology. This is because private educators cannot match the quality of university programmes in these areas, because a large quantum of investment in infrastructure is required which cannot yield a satisfactory rate of return on that investment.

We have now reached the point where two things are inevitable unless there is a significant change in policy:

1. The quality of our programmes, and hence of our graduates, will diminish. There are so few opportunities for further efficiency gains that further cost savings will involve further loss of functions which are essential for the maintenance of the quality of our programmes of teaching and research.

2. Scientific equipment, much of which is quite aged, will not be able to be replaced when it fails or when modern developments mean that it has become obsolete. As well as reducing our capacity to do research at the forefront of science, this too will have the effect of diminishing the quality of the education we give our students. The ultimate result will be a reduction in the competitiveness of New Zealand in the world knowledge marketplace.

Please note that we are not resistant to change. During the last decade universities have changed. We have become more productive, with higher teaching loads and a greater research output. We have also tried, within the financial constraints, to adapt our programmes to meet future needs as far as we can envisage them, and we would argue that we, who are in touch with international developments in our disciplines, are in the best position to anticipate such changes. We understand the problem of a demand for tertiary education that is increasing faster than the economy is growing, and we are most willing to participate in the quest for solutions to these problems. However, we are seldom consulted.

Events in recent days have shown that the situation brought about by a decade of tightening financial circumstances is universal among New Zealand's universities. Student fees will again have to be increased to cover the latest decrease in government funding, and student numbers are now falling as a result. We have reached crisis. We are gravely concerned that as a result of the consequential loss of quality of university programmes, particularly in science and engineering, we will fail badly in providing an educated community that will enable New Zealand to compete globally in the knowledge economy.

Yours faithfully,

The Executive, School of Earth Sciences:

Euan Smith, Professor of Geophysics, Head of School

Peter Barrett, Professor of Geology, Manager Graduate Programmes

Michael Crozier, Professor of Geomorphology, Chairperson, Institute of Geography

John Collen, Director of Geology Programme

Richard Willis, Director of Geography Programme

Julie Round, School Administrator

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