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Changes to university councils will harm academic freedom

Media release
Academic Freedom Aotearoa
11 February 2014

Changes to university councils will harm academic freedom

Who governs our universities is of crucial importance to all New Zealanders, because it affects the ability of academics to speak up on controversial issues, says Academic Freedom Aotearoa.

The government plans to cut the size of university and wānanga councils, making them more like corporate boards.

Academic Freedom Aotearoa co-chairs Dr Sandra Grey and Professor Jack Heinemann say the government changes do not provide enough separation between universities and government, as the minister could appoint many of the council members.

“Currently there are elected staff, student, and community representatives on university and wānanga councils. These people ensure a university meets its crucial public good role. They ensure that our public tertiary education institutions contribute to democratic debates.”

“If the minister makes such a high percentage of council appointments he is more able to pull the strings, and this could mean outspoken academics and students who critique government actions will find themselves in hot water with councils.”

“Even if there are no direct cases in which university and wānanga councils directly censure staff for public critiques undertaken,” says Dr Grey, “the fear generated about biting the hand that feeds will leave all New Zealanders unsure as to whether academics can fulfil their role in our democracy.”

Professor Heinemann points out that “there are different kinds of institutions in the tertiary sector and they have varying portfolios. These proposed changes treat each institution as if they all had only a few portfolios and the same obligations to the taxpayer. They do not.”

“Universities, for example, don’t exist to limit knowledge transfer relevant to only the few industries large enough to potentially dominate access to councils, or to teach students only what the university anticipates are the knowledge and skills that will get them jobs,” says Professor Heineman.

“Universities have a long term commitment to society. They cater for students that have specific career objectives, and for those that don’t, but have interests and skills that education can help them to use and enjoy. They welcome back students at all ages and stages of study, supporting them through a lifetime of career and personal choices.”

Dr Grey says what is more outrageous is that the changes come even though the government admits that universities are performing well.

Who are we:

Academic Freedom Aotearoa is a watchdog and advocacy group made up of academics from all around New Zealand. The group, established in 2013, is committed to protecting and enhancing academic freedom and tertiary education institutions’ autonomous role as the critic and conscience of society.

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