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AUS Tertiary Update

Cullen to focus on quality and relevance (and salaries)
In his second major speech as the new Minister for Tertiary Education, Dr Michael Cullen has told the Association of University Staff (AUS) that a key part of his agenda will be to continue the work of his two predecessors, Steve Maharey and Trevor Mallard, to get a stronger focus on the quality and relevance of teaching and learning in tertiary education.
Dr Cullen told the AUS Annual Conference, held in Wellington this week, that, while there were many facets to creating the right environment for that to happen, four key ones are encouraging a stronger culture around teaching excellence, supporting high-quality research, promoting salary regimes that provide strong incentives for academic staff to work in New Zealand and a better focus on funding that rewards quality and relevance rather than raw enrolment statistics.
In defining quality, Dr Cullen posed the question of how quality would be benchmarked. “Do we mean comparability with academic institutions overseas?” he asked. “Or do we mean a more specific ‘fitness for purpose’ aligned to the set of skills and competencies that enable people to thrive and adapt in the workforce?”
With regard to relevance, Dr Cullen asked whether it meant a response by tertiary-education providers to the short-term skill needs and research priorities of the economy, or was it asking for a degree of prescience, whereby providers are asked to equip students for the world they will encounter in five or ten years’ time.
“The more one aims for quality, the more removed one gets from the real world and its priorities and timeframes. The more relevant one was to the real world and real-time concerns, the less one could practice critical thought and reflection,” Dr Cullen said. “That pointed to the familiar paradigm of the distinction between universities and polytechnics; the former turned out graduates with a good grasp of academic theory while the latter focused on immediate skill needs with a strong vocational emphasis, being less concerned with the larger picture. This is a paradigm that we need to break out of. It has not served us well. Quality ought not to imply graduates who need to be retrained by employers in order to be useful. And relevance means more than just this year’s skills.”
On the question of promoting salaries and conditions that provide strong incentives for academic staff to work in New Zealand, Dr Cullen said that, while he could not at this point make any specific commitments, he gave his assurance that the work of the Tripartite Forum would be taken seriously and in good faith by the Government.
In turn, AUS General Secretary, Helen Kelly, reminded Dr Cullen that, as both Minister for Tertiary Education and Minister of Finance, he was well positioned to mainline the Budget for university salaries.
Dr Cullen’s speech can be located at: http://www.aus.ac.nz/news/2005/CullenSpeech.pdf

Also in Tertiary Update this week
1. Wananga being “ethnically cleansed”
2. Student-loan loophole to be closed
3. New data show university students borrow most
4. Chancellors join forces
5. Open Polytechnic closed by action
6. NYU teaching assistants threatened with blacklisting
7. Protests over appointment at Tehran
8. University’s evolution website sued

Wananga being “ethnically cleansed”
The Chief Executive of Te Wananga o Aotearoa (TWOA), Dr Rongo Wetere, told the Waitangi Tribunal he could not tolerate being part of an “ethnically cleansed” organisation, according to a report in today’s Waikato Times.
A three-day Waitangi Tribunal hearing began in Hamilton yesterday over claims that the Government has breached the New Zealand Bill of Rights by trying to cut the size of TWOA by restricting courses to Maori students only. The claim, which was lodged on behalf of the Aotearoa Institute, the Wananga’s parent body, argues that those actions are illegal, racially divisive and amount to a breach of a Treaty of Waitangi settlement.
The Waikato Times reports that the lawyer acting for the claimants, Mai Chen, told the hearing that the Government is discriminating on racial grounds, saying that Maori have the right to academic freedom and the Aotearoa Institute the right to determine its own courses.
The New Zealand Herald reports Dr Wetere as saying the Government is intent on reducing the size of the Wananga and forcing it to become a Maori-teaching-Maori organisation in order to cut tertiary education numbers and save money. “We have Pakeha managers in the Wananga going hell for leather making changes, intent on downsizing us,” he said.
Dr Wetere said moves to downsize the Wananga would kill the organisation. “We are at a crossroads. We either are going forward or going down,” he said. “Let’s have a true partnership. Let us have true equality. If it is good enough for universities, then it is good enough for wananga Maori. We are the largest in the country, and we have earned our right to a partnership.”
Claims relating to a $20m suspensory loan withheld by the Government, and compensation for losses incurred due to the negative publicity surrounding the Wananga, are not part of the current hearing.
The five-member Tribunal, chaired by Judge Stephanie Milroy, will hear further evidence over the next two days.

Student-loan loophole to be closed
The Government will close a potential loophole in its interest-free student-loan scheme by ensuring that refunds relating to the 2004-05 and 2005-06 tax years remain subject to interest, preventing refunds being claimed for previous years unless they have already been lodged, and removing the opportunity to apply for special deduction rates below the standard 10 percent rate for the balance of the current tax year.
The move follows revelations last week that a former student had reclaimed $15,000 voluntarily repaid off his student loan a few months previously, so that he could take advantage of the Government’s new interest-free-loan policy by placing the money on interest-bearing deposit.
Under current legislation, student-loan borrowers who have made voluntary repayments above the minimum repayment levels are permitted to request a refund of those repayments up to six months after making them.
The Minister for Tertiary Education, Dr Michael Cullen, said that a Supplementary Order Paper would be introduced during the Committee stages of the Bill, which would make the changes effective from this week. Inland Revenue will have the discretion to exempt from interest refunds made in cases of serious financial hardship.
Dr Cullen said the aim of the legislation was to prevent people from trying to “game” the system.
The costings for the interest-free policy, to be included in the December Economic and Fiscal Update, assume that the volume of voluntary repayments will fall to 20 percent of their present value over three years. According to Dr Cullen, repayment of the principal will still be compulsory above a certain income threshold, currently $16,588 a year, and loans will continue to be available only to cover fees, course-related costs and, in the case of full-time students, living costs to a maximum of $150 a week.

New data show university students borrow most
An “integrated data set” looking at student loans, released this week by Statistics New Zealand, shows that borrowers studying at a university between 1997 and 2003 had a median loan balance of $11,920, which was higher than for students anywhere else in the sector. It also shows that male and female students who borrowed under the Student Loan Scheme had an equivalent rate of full repayment of 14 percent as at March 2004.
In 2003, borrowers enrolled in a bachelor’s degree had a median amount borrowed of $5,450, higher than for any other qualification type that year. Students who took out a loan between 1997 and 2002 and advised Inland Revenue they were overseas in 2003 owed $9,880 more, on average, than those assumed to be residing in New Zealand. Loan holders who were overseas had a mean loan balance of $20,780 in March 2004, compared with $10,900 for those assumed to be residing in New Zealand.
According to the New Zealand University Students’ Association (NZUSA), the data show how the debt burden has negatively affected students. “It shows that only a minority of borrowers have been able to repay their loans, and that high debt is forcing graduates overseas,” said Camilla Belich, Co-President of NZUSA. “Those overseas with the highest debts are those who studied in high-fee courses like health or medicine. These people are desperately needed in New Zealand, but these data prove that they are being forced overseas by their huge loans.”
The report also shows that only 14 percent of all borrowers, and only 7 percent of Maori and 8 percent of Pasifika students, from 1997-2003 have repaid their loans fully. “There is clearly a disproportionately negative effect of getting into debt for Maori and Pasifika students. This shows that the loan scheme in its current form is just not working for the majority of borrowers,” said Ms Belich.
The data set can be located at:
http://www2.stats.govt.nz/domino/external/pasfull/pasfull.nsf/web/Hot+Off+The+Press+Integrated+Data+on+Student+Loan+Borrowers+1997–2003?open

Chancellors join forces
Education Review reports that the eight New Zealand universities have decided against setting up an incorporated body for their chancellors. Rather they will “power-up” their existing committee in order to give themselves a national voice.
Massey University Chancellor Nigel Gould said that university councils considered creating an incorporated body for chancellors in order to be able to play a more serious role at a national level. Concerns, however, that the creation of such a body would be using a sledgehammer to crack a nut resulted in an agreement to use their existing committee to provide a better forum for chancellors.
Mr Gould, who is the committee’s Chair, said it would meet three to four times a year and would make public statements on issues, adding that it would use the Vice-Chancellors’ Committee for some administrative support and might seek additional funds for one-off projects. He said the committee was structuring an agenda based on common interests, which included improving the quality of governance of universities.
The committee saw a need to work with government and the broader tertiary sector to ensure universities delivered a high-quality contribution, and it recognised government’s desire for greater differentiation between tertiary institutions.
A national association of chancellors and the chairs of other tertiary institution councils was recommended to the government in a report on governance by Australian expert Meredith Edwards in 2003, but was never acted on.

Open Polytechnic closed by action
Union members at the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand will today consider further industrial action following strike action last Friday over failed collective-employment-agreement negotiations. In response to a claim from the Association of Staff in Tertiary Education (ASTE) for a 7.5 percent salary increase, the Polytechnic has offered 2 percent.
ASTE National Secretary, Sharn Riggs, said that union members were appalled that their pay offer was less than the rate of inflation. “Effectively, our members would be taking a pay cut if they accepted this offer,” she said. “Further industrial action is likely to follow if the employer does not see fit to make a pay offer in keeping with the Polytechnic’s resources, and in line with the kinds of pay increases lecturers in other polytechnics are getting.”
“The academic staff find it difficult to reconcile the employer’s offer of 2 percent with the increases afforded the Chief Executive Officer, and with the institution reporting surpluses of $4m for the last two financial years,” said Ms Riggs. “This institution was among the top seven performers financially in the polytechnic sector, returning a surplus of 5.6% in 2004. In addition, the Open Polytechnic Annual Report for 2004 shows that the institution has nearly $14m sitting as investments and one of the highest student-to-academic-staff ratios in the country.”
Ms Riggs said that, while ASTE has offered to return to negotiations in order to try and find a solution before today’s stopwork meeting, Polytechnic management had advised that, although they were looking at ways to progress negotiations in a “difficult financial environment” more work was required before getting back into talks.

Worldwatch
NYU teaching assistants threatened with blacklisting
Striking graduate teaching assistants at New York University have been threatened with blacklisting by the University President, John Sexton, as industrial action to safeguard conditions of employment and union rights enters its third week. The University has said that it will not recognise, or work with, the Union representing staff; instead it has offered new individual contracts and made a number of threats against teaching assistants who do not accept the new agreements.
The teaching assistants say they will remain on strike until the University again recognises their union, which is an affiliate of the United Automobile Workers.
In a letter to striking staff, John Sexton says that the time has come for the University to meet the needs of its undergraduates. Those who do not return to work under the non-negotiated conditions will lose both their post-graduate stipend (allowances) and their eligibility to teach.
The American Association of University Professors has entered the dispute, saying it deplores the decision of the NYU administration to sever bargaining relations with its graduate-student union. It says that, instead of averting a strike by bargaining in good faith with the democratically elected union, the NYU administration has chosen to intensify the crisis, using confrontational language to mischaracterise the concerns of graduate-student unionists. “We condemn such inflammatory tactics. Colleges and universities should be held to a higher standard than profit-seeking corporations and should serve as models for our society. It is morally incumbent upon the NYU administration to honor the democratically determined wishes of its most vulnerable employees, the graduate teaching assistants who have expressed their desire to be unionised,” it says.

Protests over appointment at Tehran
The replacement of the President of Tehran University by a conservative cleric at the weekend has prompted student protests and concerns about academic freedom at Iran’s leading university. Abbasali Amid Zanjani, who is an ayatollah and an associate professor of Islamic law at Tehran, was appointed to the post by the Government of Iran’s new hard-line President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
The appointment was announced on Friday, and Mr. Zanjani was installed in a ceremony at the University just two days later. Outside, some 500 students protested the “undemocratic way” he had been appointed, according to news reports.
Observers said the protests were among the largest in months. Iran’s often-rebellious students have been quiet following several years of repression by the security forces, which have arrested several hundred students for anti-government protests.
In 1994 Mr. Zanjani was appointed head of the Tehran University’s School of Law, but was forced from the position soon after following sustained protests from faculty members and students who considered him a threat to academic freedom after he sacked two professors for being “un-Islamic”.
The Iranian Government has also replaced the heads of at least a dozen other major universities. While it is common practice for a new Iranian president to replace university leaders, critics said they were dismayed that this time the changes had been made so suddenly. Critics also charged that a number of the new leaders are inexperienced.
From the Chronicle of Higher Education

University’s evolution website sued
Operators of a University of California-Berkeley website that is designed to help teach evolution are being sued by a California couple who say the site improperly strays into religion. Defendants include two top biologists from the UC Museum of Paleontology, which runs the Understanding Evolution website, and an official from the National Science Foundation, who is named because the Foundation provided more than $400,000 in public funding for the site.
The suit, which was filed last month, specifically objects to portions of the site that deal with the interplay of science and religion. For example, it challenges the site’s linking to doctrinal statements from a variety of religions to demonstrate that “most Christian and Jewish religious groups have no conflict with evolution”.
The claimants say it amounts to a government endorsement of certain religious groups over others, and is an effort “to modify the beliefs of public school science students so they will be more willing to accept evolutionary theory as true”.
From Austin American Statesman and the San Jose Mercury News


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AUS Tertiary Update is compiled weekly on Thursdays and distributed freely to members of the Association of University Staff and others. Back issues are available on the AUS website: www.aus.ac.nz . Direct enquires should be made to Marty Braithwaite, AUS Communications Officer, email: marty.braithwaite@aus.ac.nz

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