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Keith Rankin: Unitechs and Polyversities

Keith Rankin's Thursday Column

Unitechs and Polyversities
21 June 2000

When Graham Henry decided to coach the Welsh rugby team, the New Zealand Rugby Union responded by drafting a rule, now known as the 'Henry rule', to prohibit him from coaching the All Blacks. The rule serves no useful purpose.

In May, Tertiary Education Minister Steve Maharey did something similar. The result can be designated the 'Unitec Bill'. It is an 11th hour piece of legislation designed to prevent Auckland's Unitec from becoming a 'university'.

The costs to the New Zealand public of the Unitec Bill are at least threefold. Seven years of publicly funded endeavour has gone into the preparation of Unitec's case. Unitec's ability to act as a leader in the drive to create a 'knowledge economy' is compromised. And Unitec cannot compete on 'level playing field' terms with Australian and New Zealand 'universities' as an exporter of educational services.

The public benefits of the Unitec Bill are less clear. There seems to be a 'thin end of the wedge' argument. If Unitec gets through the u-hoop, then all tertiary institutes would want to be called universities. But so what? We are not talking about funding new institutions here. The only costs would be redesigning logos and reprinting stationery.

What is in a name? What is a polytech, a technical institute, an institute of technology, a university, a university of technology? Under the pure market model adopted as a result of the neoliberal reforms, virtually all established tertiary education providers wanted to be professional training institutes while being called 'universities'. To get more bums on seats, tertiary institutes had to "produce" human capital that commercially-oriented organisations would pay good money for. The u-word served as a means of disguising the reality of our system of competing polyversities. The u-label represents a kind of clothing that publicly sanctifies mammon and thus gives extra value to an institute's product range. The polytech label has no such mystique.

I believe that 'university' is a term that can be usefully applied to all institutions that run degree programmes, and that undertake research.

It is useful however to contrast universities of the economy (commonly known today as institutes of technology or universities of technology) with universities of society. The main purpose of the former is to service the economy, through the supply of professional people and applied knowledge, regulated in accordance with the price mechanisms of supply and demand. The universities of society, on the other hand, produce public knowledge as a 'final output' (meaning output not intended as an input into something else) and iconoclastic people whose activities are given, unpurchased and unpriced.

In practical terms, a university (of society), in its pure form, confines itself to pure science (natural science and social science, mathematics) and to the humanities (literature, history and philosophy).

Of course there is an overlap. Universities of the economy produce public as well as private outputs, and universities of society generate private as well as public outputs. The differences, explicit in their various mission statements, are ones of emphasis. Both kinds of university value research, criticism and professionalism.

Universities of the economy must pay market salaries to their employees and sub-contractors. Employment in universities of society is more a calling. While standards must be high, salaries only need to be enough to maintain a community of scholars.

Unitec has the potential to become an excellent university of the economy. Massey University, with its university status and multiple campuses, is already such a university. Its latest repositioning exercise leaves no doubt about Massey's economic orientation.

The University of Auckland, located in the heart of our nation's largest city, should be focussing its resources on the pursuit of pure public knowledge and culture, and not on offering, for example, short business courses in direct competition with neighbouring institutes. It could devolve around halve of its present self (including its Tamaki Campus, its Business School and its Medical School) to the adjacent Auckland University of Technology. The AUT would then become the biggest teaching university in New Zealand.

With the Business School off its back, the study of political economy (the former, and better, name for economics) could once again flourish at the University of Auckland. There could even be a faculty of economics, as there is in some overseas universities. Whatever, economics at the University of Auckland would at least be able to re-identify itself as a social science instead of as the adjunct to business that it all too easily becomes.

Wellington's Victoria University can neatly complement Massey's Buckle Street operation, instead of acting like a petulant rival. And the University of Canterbury could devolve, say, its forestry and engineering schools to Lincoln University.

One approach would be to resurrect the University of New Zealand as a four-centred university of society committed to the promotion of independent research, graduate teaching, criticism, multilogue (excuse the neologism), all independent of any commercial imperative.

The challenge for Steve Maharey is not to find ways to prevent an Institute like Unitec from becoming a university of the economy. Rather his challenge is to prevent the likes of the University of Auckland from becoming a polyversity, an overstretched poorly focussed institute that trades on its official status as a university.

A free civilised society needs a University and universities. It needs a commitment to both a knowledge society and a knowledge economy; to the public and private domains; to public giving and to private selling. Public and private activities reinforce each other. On the other hand, jealous, rivalrous commercially-oriented universities and institutes add up to less than the sum of their many parts.

The Unitec Bill misses the point. It is better that Unitec devotes more resources to, say, its Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and less to repeated re-applications to be formally registered under the u-label in preference to the i-label or the unfashionable p-label. Unitec can better contribute to the New Zealand economy and to the social and economic development of Auckland if it can be seen to be what it is, a university of the economy, a university of technology.

Yes, I do teach economics at Unitec.

© 2000 Keith Rankin published on Scoop at

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