Universities should be apolitical, not centres of social justice activism
A perfect storm is hitting our university sector right now. Current social justice political activism is an aggravating factor in the present extreme financial difficulties our universities are experiencing. They will have welcomed the announcement on 27 June by the minister of education to inject NZ$128 million (US$79 million) into the tertiary education sector, but this is just a drop of water on a hot stone.
A full review of the tertiary education sector funding model is long overdue. The current situation raises a long-term risk to the operational health and international reputation of our universities. This risk has in turn been intensified by the very slow post-COVID restart to international student business. What needs to be done to restore the sector to full health?
The USA Kalven Report of 1967 noted that the university’s mission was the “discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge”, and that it has “…a great and unique role to play in fostering the development of social and political values in a society”.
However, the report emphasises the vital need for neutrality. “The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic.”
The first of four fundamental principles in the 1988 European Bologna Accord on the role of universities reaffirms: “The university is an autonomous institution at the heart of societies differently organised because of geography and historical heritage; it produces, examines, appraises and hands down culture by research and teaching. To meet the needs of the world around it, its research and teaching must be morally and intellectually independent of all political authority and economic power.”
Unfortunately, New Zealand universities, while dependent on the government for funding, are losing sight of this need for intellectual independence of the institution itself from all political authority.
Misplaced social justice activism
Gender and identity political activism is widespread internationally. For example, in May 2023, University of Cincinnati student, Olivia Krolczyk, was graded zero for a project proposal in gender studies for using the term ‘biological women’. (The proposal was later regraded ‘A’ by a different staff member).
Here in New Zealand, a senior academic was recently warned that questioning a perceived fall in academic standards would lead to disciplinary action. Also in New Zealand, failing to address matauranga Maori (Maori knowledge, including traditional concepts of knowledge) in contestable funding grant applications, even in mathematics or fundamental physics, may jeopardise the chance of winning a grant. These are just three examples of situations that have become commonplace.
Social justice activism is potentially damaging to the New Zealand university system and society as a whole. University students must, of course, be free to study and debate social justice issues, but it is the place of the state, the courts and charities to deliver social justice, not the university itself.
Universities should be places of open enquiry in the quest for evidence-based truth and of open debate on matters of controversy, but not institutions where subjective experience or an ideological view is presented as an unarguable truth and becomes indoctrination.
While the tertiary education sector should be supporting equity and diversity initiatives, for example, by bringing matauranga Maori into taught specialist programmes, either alone or where it complements other knowledge, universities now appear to be competing to be the most Te Tiriti-led, and without a clear definition of what such a position actually means.
At the risk of being marginalised, academics are now also pressured not to criticise the adoption of Te Ao Maori (Maori language, respect and acknowledgement of Maori customs and protocols, and embracing the Maori story and identity).
We must also bring more Maori and Pasifika through our universities, and more ultimately into academic positions, although recent work by David Lillis has demonstrated that allegations of systemic bias and racism in university appointments and promotions are untrue and that minority groups (Maori and Pasifika) are employed in roughly similar percentages as predicted by doctoral completions.
Lillis has also questioned whether it is wise expenditure of taxpayers’ money for universities to promote or mandate widespread use of Maori language when it is not used outside New Zealand and is spoken fluently by only 3% of New Zealanders. Moreover, the language cannot be easily adapted to many areas in the sciences.
Te Tiriti-led changes, along with wider social justice activism and identity politics, are leading to our universities becoming politicised and losing their standing as trusted homes and protectors of freedom of thought, freedom of speech and impartial and objective discourse.
These ideals are critical for international teaching and research credibility in a modern university, and social justice objectives must not dilute academic merit as the key criterion of student learning and research success.
A decline in our international standing?
In recent world rankings, New Zealand universities have all been in the top 500. It will be impossible to maintain this status in a climate where an ethnocentric or social justice activist culture has given rise to a narrower, inward focus. Under such a system our graduates would become less employable internationally.
International students, particularly from our largest markets, China and India, would look elsewhere to find politically neutral universities with a broad curriculum unaffected by the adoption of a local indigenous cultural character, or a distinct political stance on gender and identity issues.
A further consequence of reduced international student interest in New Zealand would be a consequential loss to our research and high-technology industry sectors.
International PhD students make up the majority of PhDs in science and engineering in several of our universities, and their loss for well over two years due to the COVID-19 border closure has meant a reduction in capability flowing to short- or long-term employment in New Zealand, and a reduction in new intellectual property from research and technology transfer into start-up businesses.
Our universities have long enjoyed strong international research reputations but can ill afford to adopt a cultural position that reduces the breadth of their international appeal and, ultimately, their credibility.
International research partners will look askance at changes that move New Zealand away from a key focus on international research collaboration, particularly in areas such as science, where government ministries are promoting parity of matauranga Maori with modern world science; a move that is already well under way in our early childhood, primary and secondary education.
An international group, including Peter Schwerdtfeger, have documented ongoing attempts to undermine the core principles of liberal epistemology in science internationally, and to replace merit with non-scientific, politically motivated criteria.
Many academics are uncomfortable with the direction that is now being taken but are afraid to speak out for fear of loss of promotion prospects, disciplinary action, being labelled racist, or even finding their names on one of the current redundancy lists.
The costs of social justice compliance and a falling funding base
Cultural reshaping of New Zealand universities will exacerbate current financial pressures through costs of additional staff appointed to dedicated roles and courses that may not pay their way but meet a compliance goal. Universities have been funded partly through student fees since 1990, and since then have operated under increasing financial pressure as increases in government funding have fallen around 40% below the cumulative CPI (consumer price index) increase.
Much student fee income has gone into greatly expanded central services such as marketing, communications, business and community outreach, student learning support and pastoral care and equity and diversity staffing. Government control over student fee increases has also meant that these fees, despite being onerous on the students, have not kept pace with inflation. This problem has partly been the driver behind the pursuit of international fee-paying enrolments.
This situation is compounded by the much larger percentage of government expenditure on tertiary education going into student support (44%), rather than university operations, in New Zealand, compared with the OECD average of 17% (dated figures, but likely still valid).
In 2012, academic salaries were about 20% behind Australia and employer superannuation contributions are far higher in Australia. It is hard to get more recent figures, but the situation will not have improved since then. Overall, the financial pressures are now sufficient to seriously compromise the ability of our universities to deliver a broad range of high-quality teaching and research programmes and to attract top academic staff from overseas.
Universities are major contributors to their regional GDP (gross domestic product), for example, 2.4% in Auckland and 6.3% in Otago. Apart from the graduate capability launched into public and private sector employment each year, the wider economic benefits universities bring are vital for New Zealand.
With just under 183,000 students in 2021 (14% international; 36% postgraduate), the university system is a large industry with a sector spend of NZ$4.2 billion (US$2.6 billion) in 2019 and has grown to depend heavily on international students to meet both operating costs and the TEC (Tertiary Education Commission) annual 3% surplus target.
It is no surprise that with domestic enrolments down in 2023, and international enrolments still painfully rebuilding, New Zealand’s eight universities are facing staff cuts in order to remain viable.
International students – an economic imperative
In early 2020, there was a complete shutdown of all the country’s NZ$1.5 billion (NZ$5 billion if wider economic benefits are included) international student business, except for online enrolments and students already in New Zealand.
The country has been slow to rebuild international enrolments towards the 19% of total enrolments figure in 2019 and was not fully open until late 2022. Government had no interest in permitting COVID-19 quarantine in student hostels in 2020-21 and was inattentive to the possibilities offered by the creation of dedicated student quarantine facilities.
The situation has been made worse by the loss of capability in Immigration New Zealand, which became a major bottleneck in processing student visas to enable us to compete more effectively with others ahead in the market such as the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, all of whom opened up much more quickly and incentivised their international student operations post-COVID.
International enrolments are essential for the financial viability, cultural enrichment and international connectedness of our universities, for business and professional connections built by international graduates, for our research efforts and for the wider economy. These enrolments are now picking up again, but we must ensure they are a robust part of university business in the future.
Recommendations for refocusing and vitalising our universities
How do we turn all of this around? Possible actions are:
• Incentivise freedom of speech and political neutrality. It is not the remit or responsibility of the university to be the kind and conscionable face of the state, or of any political party. For that we have the justice system and government agencies. Government does not own our universities but, of course, is a major funder.
It could influence internal policy by strong encouragement of freedom of speech, and by rewarding an absence of social justice politics driving programmes and staff behaviours. This could occur through, for example, targeted funding around best practice in the neutral role of “critic and conscience of society” and-or international teaching and research relevance. While social justice issues should be widely debated, a university’s operating culture should not be driven by social justice political agendas.
• Carry out an internationally benchmarked review of university funding and reset base student funding levels, with a higher proportion of government funding supporting institutional operations. The level of student fees for the various programme categories will also have to be reviewed. Conversely, we would ideally deliver fees-free degree education, but if this is not possible, then access to university education could be ensured for students of limited means by funding targeted, need-based scholarships. Internally, universities should refocus a greater proportion of expenditure on core teaching and research.
• Re-focus the Performance Based Research Fund back from its recently increased social justice focus to a renewed emphasis on research excellence and relevance.
• Reboot Immigration New Zealand to ensure that ample, properly trained capability is present to deliver a speedy and effective international student visa service. Finance Education New Zealand and universities for an intensive and extended marketing campaign in key overseas source countries for international enrolments.
• Generate an agreement between the eight universities around commitment to maintaining international standing. This initiative would require statements around adhering to the liberal epistemology in science, resisting moves to give equivalence in science studies to indigenous or minority ‘ways of knowing’, and removing unnecessary restrictions to teaching and research, thus ensuring international connectedness in research, and respect for multiple viewpoints while holding to a politically neutral position on all subjects.
A return to political neutrality
New Zealand must not aspire to being an inward-looking Pacific ethnostate, a direction that seems to have been fostered by the present government. It is vital that, for their future international credibility, our universities, on a viable financial footing, return to being completely apolitical and resist the changes that are being wrought by social justice activism.
University decisions and actions in relation to teaching, research and outreach should be based on merit and not on identity.
The health, and international engagement and reputation, of our university sector are critical to the functioning of our society and economy. Universities must build a renewed focus on broad, non-politically aligned programme offerings, science teaching and research, reflecting the best of current international knowledge, and freedom of speech, protected so that opposing philosophical views are debated but proponents of a counterview are not cancelled.
In this article we have addressed only three issues. Several other factors are also critical to the future of our universities, including maintaining curriculum relevance and high academic standards, the presence of private sector tertiary education organisations, international online degree offerings, the increase in local online delivery of programmes and related course assessment issues and the growing presence of artificial intelligence as a research and writing tool.
All of these actions require agile and forward-looking universities, free from the damaging diversion of radical postmodern social justice activism.
John Raine is an emeritus professor of engineering and held deputy and pro vice-chancellor roles across three New Zealand universities. He has been active long-term in research commercialisation strategy and operations. Dr David Lillis is a retired researcher, statistician and academic manager who also worked for several years in research evaluation for the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology. Peter Schwerdtfeger is a distinguished professor in theoretical chemistry and physics and head of the New Zealand Institute for Advanced Study at Massey University. The opinions expressed here are those of the writers, and not of the universities with which they are or were formerly affiliated. The authors gratefully acknowledge the advice of Professor Douglas Elliffe and Dr Nick Matzke. This article was first published on BreakingViews.co.nz.