NZAS submission to University Advisory Group now available

31 May 2024 08:00 | Anonymous member (Administrator)

The New Zealand Association of Scientists submission to the University Advisory Group is now available (PDF). The text of the submission appears below.

Q1: What should be the primary functions of universities for a contemporary world?

Universities were an almost magical solution to the problems of the 20th century. The same sense of magic has not applied when addressing the grand challenges of the 21st century. This has left universities lurching forward toward an unstable fate: the primary functions they provided to lift the wealth and well-being of our society in the 20th century must continue yet are not supported through government funding tied to student numbers and research. 

We believe that the primary functions of universities should be supported as defined by s268 of the Education and Training Act of 2020,[1] which are unchanged from the section legislated three decades earlier. These functions, in our words and with our annotations, are:

  1. Providing for advanced learning, with the aim of developing intellectual independence
  2. Teaching is interdependent with research and the advancement of knowledge
  3. Achieving international excellence across teaching and research
  4. Serving as a repository of knowledge and expertise
  5. Accepting a role as critic and conscience of society

The period since 2019 teaches us that providing for the stability of these functions should also be seen as a primary function of universities, sufficient to reconsider adjusting models for funding, governance and leadership as needed. There is reason to optimise and augment but not discontinue the mechanisms that link university finances to current drivers of funding. These driving sources of funding include the provision of teaching through the Tertiary Education Commission’s (TEC) mandate to ensure employment requirements are met, as well as demand for export education, and also the main pipelines of research funding. 

With New Zealand’s universities increasingly respected nationally and internationally, by 2017–2019 there became a need to better understand how the functions and funding for universities should be stabilised. The current funding model places an overdependence on growth and future funding models must avoid the fragility we have recently seen, which appears to make their primary functions more visible while losing functions and capacity in areas key to an advanced economy.  We remark on the following key considerations.

  1. In (A) and (B) universities are not guaranteed ascendance over other bodies, most notably public research organisations (PROs) including but not limited to Crown Research Institutes (CRIs). They may be best placed to achieve these primary functions through connectivity in the most challenging fields (such as climate change), so that there is a spectrum across a community of experts[2] spanning teaching and research.
  2. Excellence (C) benefits our institutions primarily through the earned trust and respect of international peers, as well as stakeholders across the nation, rather than as something that must be carefully defined or measured to allocate resources.
  3. There is a need to fund and incentivise the ability of our system to be a repository of knowledge and expertise, able to sustainably replicate senior experts by training future leaders (D) and also act more unreservedly as critic and conscience of society (E). For a number of reasons, training fewer PhDs to a higher quality along strategic career pathways would be highly desirable.

Q2: What should be the long-term shape of the university sector in New Zealand so that it meets these primary roles?

The current shape of the tertiary sector is driven almost entirely by meeting student/employment demand in the TEC model plus full-cost MBIE and PBRF/CoRE[3] research income. There should be a more complete model that stabilises institutions while allowing adjustments and at the same time ensuring the core functions of universities are funded. This can be combined with the work of the SSAG to ensure the overall needs of the national RSIT system are met.

It is also important to avoid assuming that growth will be inherently foundational within the future shape of the sector. The PBRF grew naturally to fuel uplift in the quality of research throughout the sector until 2019, but the PBRF is ill suited to sustain the excellence it has built with the kind, sustainable and collaborative culture consistent with our national identity. With the magic of universities to solve society’s problems remaining important but not growing, and increasing questions about whether an ever-growing portion of society should be educated through university degrees,[4] we recommend designing the future of the university sector around an attractive culture that sustainably and stably delivers the benefits society seeks from universities as defined in legislation (above).

It must be said that careers form a defining element of the shape of the sector, and future design must also cater for careers while improving mobility and exchange with government, PROs, business and international counterparts. Embracing indigenous research careers and te ao Māori as defining elements of our nation must also be included in design. Maintaining a geographically diverse set of institutions is important in supporting the uniqueness of te ao Māori found across the motu. Dispersed institutions supporting primary industries have a high social rate of return so care must be taken to prevent competition driving smaller institutions into the ground. Interactions with Horizon Europe provide a glimpse of what this future can look like, and it so far appears that the role of Māori can play at least as big a role as our unique ecosystems and unique place on the Earth do in environmental research.

As such, it would be beneficial to see shaping initiatives that more responsively self-organise while responding to national and institution-wide incentives: 1) improved support for administration at the scale of departments, disciplines and collaborative institutes/centres rather than centralisations that have not delivered efficiencies and often proven counterproductive and lacked transparency; 2) collaborations between institutions, seed funding, and career incentives that can be targeted at the scale of endeavour and from clusters or hubs that represent major initiatives, such as CoREs or initiatives that ensure mission-led research can reach the scale needed to deliver national/sectoral strategies.

Q3: What are the barriers (excluding fiscal) that limit the universities from operating efficiently and effectively for the benefit of New Zealand?

The competition between institutions remains a driving force that has shifted from supporting improved quality and performance to deleterious net effects that result in under-resourcing and poor culture or well being. This includes the potential for historic factors to contribute to a rich-get-richer dynamic as well cyclic hiring temporarily favouring younger units, potentially at the expense of retaining long-term knowledge and expertise.

Q4: Can the eight universities function better as a holistic system to meet New Zealand’s needs? If so, how to establish a more differentiated yet cooperative sector?

Yes, better and more holistic function should be expected: collaborate more; compete less. Good models that sit between a single University of New Zealand and eight separate, competing universities must be identified and tested. It seems unlikely that eight largely undifferentiated and competing institutions serve a population of five million or less in a stable way. Other nations, states or provinces with similar populations, including those in the US, Australia, and Canada, clearly create mechanisms where less deleterious competition exists and differentiated institutions fulfil more structured expectations. A re-envisioning of PBRF that still provides for monitoring and evaluation but is targeted to more structured expectations would be beneficial. Most of all, the basic systems theory that competition can be positive to orient growth phases but tends to be deleterious at steady-state equilibriums should be adhered to. Where a dominance of oversubscribed contestable funding interacts with systems like PBRF in the UK and Australia, we would ask if evidence exists that the deleterious effects of hypercompetition can be ameliorated. We fear the long-term impacts.

Q5: How research-intensive do New Zealand universities have to be? Do they need to be research intensive in all subjects?

As noted above, the long-standing legislative definition of universities implies they should be “a repository of knowledge and expertise” and enable teaching by leaders in research, which meets international standards of excellence. Inevitably there will be some fields where expertise may dominantly comprise full-time researchers in present or future PROs. It is likely that most areas of research expertise are better concentrated in a few rather than all universities. However, the CRIs have observed publicly that our universities do not train work-ready doctorates in many of their areas of work, requiring overseas recruitment. This speaks to a need for greater research capacity in universities, which can more ably replicate the expertise needed to support our nation, particularly in areas where knowledge is unique including geology, soil science, agriculture, ecology and indigenous research. Of similar importance, universities may play an outsize role as ‘critic and conscience,’  which should be grounded in sufficient research and expertise to convey credibility and trust.

Q6: What is the appropriate mix of offerings in teaching, research, and knowledge transfer across the system to meet economic, environmental, and social challenges?

The mix of offerings should be as broad as can be supported in a stable way, because future needs and innovation will emanate from the edges and gaps in knowledge more than well-trodden ground. We recommend a mix that is self-organising to propose and test solutions to major challenges across these three areas. We note also that for large-scale challenges, polycentrism may generate emergent solutions[5] that we too often stamp out with calls to eliminate duplication.

Knowledge transfer focussed on commercialisation may be counterproductive when IP considerations prevent dissemination of research, impacting the perceived productivity of researchers when viewed through an output-metric lens. This aspect of the offering from a university should be carefully balanced with the potential for a more comfortable fit in other institutions (e.g. through secondment) while acknowledging participation of teaching academics in this process can be beneficial to students. 

Q7: What are the most appropriate approaches to ensure excellence in teaching, research, knowledge transfer and community engagement?

The CoREs have long been recognised and even loved as a solution to every aspect of this question. They continue to have wide support from academics but are currently funded at ~2008 levels per CoRE. The CoREs served as one possible model for National Science Challenges (NSCs) as collaborative hubs,[6] but the relatively monolithic activity typical of NSCs has displaced and distracted from the value of CoREs. The underfunding of CoREs is now so severe that funding either needs to be tripled or quadrupled or these bodies canned and combined with other funding (e.g. PBRF and SSIF mainly from CRIs) to rebuild coherent excellence in a sustainable form within clusters of activity representing significant national missions for research and teaching. We strongly recommend properly funding CoREs to achieve scale while effectively remaining collaborative hubs for excellence around key missions. They have well-functioning engagement, selection, evaluation and monitoring to deliver sustainable and often collaborative excellence, outshines the processes run or approved by chancelleries to allocate PBRF and other funds to research initiatives. 

Q8: How to ensure universities play their role in advancing all segments of New Zealand society without compromising on the goals of excellence?

Defining excellence is a problem that isn’t solved neatly across segments of research or expertise. Among the problems induced by this term is the simple reality that maintaining a constancy of excellence is an oxymoron. Yet administrative overheads seem to grow as a managerial burden from efforts to provide assurance or accountability around excellence that cannot be easily defined. Our nation would do better to embrace a series of goals from which excellence tends to evolve. Among these, it would be useful to include incentives to seek insights, develop adaptive approaches to solve grand challenges and wicked problems, and accept that sometimes accepting the risk of failure is a prerequisite on the path to success.

Q9: What is the appropriate size for the domestic student body in the New Zealand universities?

This question seems to conflate the growing query about what proportion of school leavers should attend university with the question of whether larger universities with greater critical mass, smaller units focussed more on teaching (perhaps more focussed on liberal arts – learning how to think), and having universities more accessible to students through smaller more dispersed campuses. This conflation should come as no surprise in a per student funding model, larger universities are better funded, and the rich get richer.  The answer to all these questions appears to be that a more differentiated university system funded largely on a needs basis would service the nation and adapt to its needs far better than a search for an appropriate student body size at a campus.

Q10: How well are universities performing in the role as critics and consciences of society?

Universities currently perform well in this role where the academics involved don’t come up against major funders of the university, and do not require substantial resources to be kept safe[7] as has occurred as the era of misinformation and disinformation[8] has grown to place experts at risk. Unfortunately, the situations where the critic and conscience role remains fully functional appear limited. The instability resulting from the financial crisis recently facing most of our institutions overlays with the growing risk of mis- and dis-information driven threats, and has combined with the escalating problem of precarity[9]and workloads to undermine the expectation that the critic and conscience role is appropriately supported.

Q11: More appropriate questions should be developed. The UAG needs to consider a more complete high-level approach to historical inequities, institutional racism and the removal of wānanga from the s268 in the Act. Comparative case studies involving different universities and episodes in time are also worth pursuing.


[2] Concepts such as community in this submission should be seen as consistent with and linked to our SSAG submission.

[3] The Performance Based Research Fund (PBRF) and Centres of Research Excellence (CoREs)


[5] Loorbach, D., Frantzeskaki, N., & Avelino, F. (2017). Sustainability Transitions Research: Transforming Science and Practice for Societal Change. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 42(1), 599–626.

[6] Jordan, N and others. 2010. "How to enhance the value of New Zealand's investment in Crown Research Institutes." Report of the Crown Research Institutes Taskforce. Wellington




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