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Sione Palu: Unitec is a University Wannabe

Unitec is a University Wannabe

By Sione Palu

A Response To Keith Rankin's " Universities of Technology"

Earlier this year (2005) an international expert panel arrived in Auckland to assess Unitec's application to be granted a university status. They have been battling for recognition as a university since 1999, but the management felt that the government hindered their effort for their application to be granted a University status.

To satisfy university status under the Education Act, the institution must be primarily concerned with more advanced learning, deliver interdependent teaching and research that meets international standards, act as a repository of knowledge and expertise, accept a role as critic and conscience of society and have a wide diversity of teaching and research.

Dr John Webster, Unitec’s president, quoted that he was confident Unitec had the characteristics of a university.

The panel have reported their findings to the Qualifications Authority and Trevor Mallard (Minister of Education) which concluded that Unitec is not upto the required standards to be called a university.

Unitec did not like the findings of the international panel, so Dr. Webster still insists that they will pursue legal action against the government.

This hell-bent effort of Unitec to get a university status by taking legal action against the government shows an arrogant attitude. They know that they aren’t up to the mark as the panel concluded in their report. Perhaps Unitec’s president (Dr.Webster) and deputy (Dr. Codling) are more interested in having their names inscribed at the entrance of the main gate as the founding fathers of such “Unitec University”.

Last year (2004), Dr. Codling’s perspective article in NZ Herald, put forward the case of London, Durham and Manchester universities (all former technical institutes) but the comparison is completely irrelevant to Unitec. These institutions are now well established because of their research. The work of academics 100 years ago was not as globally exposed as it is today, through almost instantaneous media communications. For example, if a research paper from Calgary University (Canada) is submitted to the “Physics Review Letters” peer review journal and accepted for publication, any subscribing physicist around the world can instantly get access to this paper online.

I am amazed at how Unitec run degree programs for subjects, which are vocational, and it is beyond comprehension why NZQA should have approved such degree courses. I would not be surprised that in the future Unitec with NZQA approval would come up with degree programs such as: B.Sc in rubbish collection, B.A in carpet cleaning, B.Tech in manicurist or a PhD in clairvoyant and alternative medicine.

It is obvious that Unitec is more interested in boosting student numbers rather than having a rigorous process in selection of high-achieved applicants to degree courses. This means that applicants who have been rejected for admission to any university perhaps for academic under-achievements are more likely to be accepted at Unitec.

It is important for a small country like ours that our international academic reputation is maintained through very high standards of research. Our excellent reputation will be devalued if Unitec becomes a university. In most cases overseas, our graduates will just be regarded as New Zealand graduates where little differentiation is made amongst Auckland, Otago, Victoria and so forth. As Unitec does have a tendency to teach degrees in everything and anything, we cannot simply allow our national reputation to be associated with qualifications as ‘B.Sc in rubbish collection’. In bigger countries such as the U.S, reputations of tertiary institutions are perceived individually rather than lumped together.

Keith Rankin of Unitec stated in his column here at Scoop that “The central point that Unitec wished to make in its application to become a university is that New Zealand needs a new category of tertiary institution; a category that includes the word university”. This is a ridiculous claim. First , Unitec applied to become a University, because they thought they had the characteristics of a university. Since the international panel’s report was submitted to the NZQA recently concluding that Unitec did not meet key academic criteria of being a university, now Mr. Rankin put forward a different reason of why Unitec applied to become a university. This is what you call a feeling of Wannabe University.

If Mr. Rankin’s wish is to be granted by the government, then second class university institution as Unitec will greatly devalued the reputation of New Zealand universities and its researchers in their respective fields since their international achievements and recognitions from the past will be overshadowed by associations with less reputable university such as from the same country.

The quality of teaching is important but university status is largely determined by research. Research allows your global academic peers to scrutinize your work. If an institution is not heard of anywhere beyond its own national border or not exposed to international scrutiny in its academic work, then it should not be a university at all, period. If research is not the criteria to determine university status, then the government might as well grant university status to Manukau Institute of Technology, Te Wananga o Aotearoa, Open Polytechnic and so forth.

In 1989, Professor Fleischmann and his colleague Professor Pons of Southampton University stunned the world by announcing that they have discovered the nuclear cold fusion at room temperature. This would have made the worlds energy supply very cheap and clean. The Physics in collaboration with Chemistry departments at Auckland University sprung into action by exactly replicating the experiment described in the paper that the inventors published. The result came to a disappointing null. Fleischmann-Pons obviously had flaws in their theory and apparatus set-up. Researchers from other institutions also confirmed the null result where their findings made it to respective Chemistry & Physics peer review journals. This is exactly what a university is all about, discovery, research, scrutiny and peer recognitions.

Our universities may not be on the same par as Princeton, Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge but our academic researchers have put New Zealand at the top spot in certain disciplines. I can list more examples:

Otago University Physics department enhanced their reputation in the physics world when they announced they have succeeded in atom laser cooling to temperatures close to absolute zero, known as Bose-Einstein condensation. They were the first in the southern hemisphere to achieve this. This technology will revolutionise the designing of integrated circuits (IC) and chips.

Professor Ian Witten and his team of researchers from Waikato University have achieved academic and industry world recognition for the development of their artificial intelligence software called WEKA. This software is widely used by academics and industries around the world in wide ranges of applications, such as protein structures analysis and DNA sequencing. Microsoft head of research in the U.S , Jim Gray commended the work of this team as outstanding and world class.

At Auckland University, Professor John Butcher from the Maths department was winner of the international ‘Computational Mathematics’in 2003. Prof. Butcher is a legendary research mathematician around the world. The Late Professor Daniel Walls from Physics department was winner of Einstein’s medal and is internationally known for his research and publications in the field of ‘Quantum Optics’. Professor Harold Marshall from School of Architecture, a winner of the Sabine medal, is well known for his revolutionary design in architectural acoustics.

I have wondered what sort of research at Unitec Dr. Codling’s talked about. In computing and engineering, I have yet to come across one single publication from Unitec in a reputable international peer review technical journals such as Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) or Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). A panel of expert in a specific discipline referees research papers once they are submitted which can be rejected or accepted if it is of high quality, after review. >From time to time, you always find publications from a New Zealand university in regular issues of IEEE and ACM and the same happens in other disciplines too. This shows that at least some institutions are carrying out research at this level.

Dr. Webster, Dr. Codling and Keith Rankin should be reminded that university status is earned by proving oneself to the international academic community by way of research and not merely be something to rubber stamp the degree certificate of their foreign students.

Unitec is already a top institution in the country for teaching vocational courses. They are vital to our economy in producing graduates that meets the requirements of our industries. They should simply stick to what they are good at and that is vocational training.

Perhaps Unitec should take a leaf out of the book of prestigious world-class research driven institutions such as California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). These institutes are basically university but they don’t care at all if the word university is associated with them or not. They focus on the high quality of research they produce, and this is what made them household names internationally in academia and industry. Caltech is the home of Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) where they designed and built rockets for NASA. It has had 30 nobel-prize winners since 1923 from the fields of medicine, chemistry, physics and economics. Likewise, MIT has had 58 nobel-prize winners to date in the same fields. Unitec should try and imitate what MIT and Caltech are, and then they won’t be bothered at all about having the word ‘U’associated with them.


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