University staff say no strings to private funding
The Association of University Staff (AUS) has accused the Minister responsible for Tertiary Education, Steve Maharey, of failing to provide any satisfactory assurance that government-sponsored partnerships between universities and private enterprise will protect academic freedom.
According to a Ministerial press release, Mr Maharey told a Business NZ audience that such partnerships would involve private-sector investment in universities, “while upholding the values of academic freedom, scientific rigour and critical inquiry.” But Dr Grant Duncan, AUS National President, pointed out that the published goals and criteria for Cabinet approval of funding for such partnerships say nothing at all about academic freedom, scientific rigour or critical inquiry – and further criteria provided in response to an AUS request refer only generally and vaguely to such issues.
“Mr Maharey’s framework for approval does not ensure that his government’s drive to commercialise university funding will in practice uphold the values that are crucial to the university’s role in the advancement of knowledge.
“His current assurances on this matter must, therefore, be taken with a grain of salt. The Labour-led government is enthusiastically pursuing the commercialisation of publicly-funded education and research under the guise of so-called ‘relevance’ and ‘excellence’. Its commitment to the university’s role as an autonomous producer of knowledge and as society’s independent critic and conscience seems little more than lip service.
Dr Duncan continued, “It is likely, if this initiative proceeds as is, that universities will eventually become dependent on private enterprise, just as they are now dependent on overseas students. We are also concerned that this will provide an excuse for government not to increase needed public investment in tertiary education.”
Dr Duncan suggested that the best approach would be to strengthen the academic freedom and the ‘critic and conscience’ requirements for universities under the Education Act to ensure that neither the government nor the institutions could permit any deals with private enterprise that result in universities being used, for example, as promotional tools or as training departments of big business. Alternatively, as well as requiring ‘a thorough business case’ to support proposals for funding, strict, explicit criteria to protect academic freedom should be met.
“Most importantly,” said Dr Duncan, “There must be no strings attached to any private funding and university staff must be able to fulfil their obligation to conduct independent, publicly- available research.”
Dr Grant Duncan, AUS National President
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