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Cullen: Universities and tertiary reform

28 November 2006 Speech Notes

Universities and tertiary reform

Speech notes for address to Association of University Staff Conference, Mercure Hotel, Upper Willis St, Wellington

It's a pleasure to address your conference again.

The New Zealand tertiary education sector makes a unique and invaluable contribution to the country's national development in all dimensions – social, economic, cultural and environmental. We have a strong tradition of providing access to a broad range of education opportunities and an increasing focus on providing excellence in research.

This is a time of change for the tertiary sector.

Since I was here last year I have announced significant reforms in tertiary education.

The government is investing in higher quality courses and a better way of paying for tertiary education.

Our aim is a high income, knowledge based economy, which is both innovative and creative and provides a unique quality of life to all New Zealanders.

The changes will be positive for students, better for industry, better for the development of skills ...and better for the communities our tertiary organisations serve.

For university staff, I'm confident the new approach will be more exciting and satisfying.

I've taken on reform in the sector because it is critical that the tertiary education sector plays in accelerating the transformation of New Zealand’s economy and achieving New Zealanders broader social and cultural aspirations.

We have to get a lot of things right if we're going to restore New Zealand to the first rank of international economies.

We need to increase the level of productivity.

The innovation that drives higher productivity comes from investment in science and technology; it comes from research and higher skill levels.

Our tertiary sector has a dominant role in all this.

At the moment, the sector is structured for competition between institutions.

It's not structured to collaborate on our national economic priorities.

So last July I announced changes to bring quality outcomes, and national goals and priorities, to the centre of the tertiary sector's focus.

I know that for many within institutions there is nothing new about a desire for quality; nor a vision for how they fit into a high-value economy.

But those priorities were sometimes overwhelmed because they were not reflected in the way the government funded the sector.

So we have to get the government's end of the revamp right first; we have to align investment with the strategy.

The new approach will see the tertiary sector as a network of collaborating institutions; not as competitors.

We'll build on the distinctive contribution tertiary education organisations make to New Zealand.

Universities make a vital contribution to achieving the government's goals for the tertiary sector in their core roles of;

 Providing a wide range of research led degree and post-graduate education that is of international quality
 Undertaking excellent research in a broad range of fields
 Engaging in the dissemination and application of knowledge and in promoting learning

Starting from this core contribution, tertiary education organisation plans will be shaped by looking at outcomes desired by students, employers and the community.

The focus will be on our vision for New Zealand. We need to invest in plans developed by tertiary providers, rather than simply funding places.

Instead of next year's cash flowing to this year's enrolment, the government will make tertiary plans for a longer term.

No longer will plans be shaped ad hoc by current year enrolment patterns and inducements. Funding will move to a three-year cycle.

The starting point will be the Tertiary Education Strategy and its statement of priorities, in which the government, employers and local communities will all have a say.

We will be looking to build on the strengths of New Zealand's university system and seeking to:

 Increase the achievement at degree and post-graduate levels of under-represented groups
 Enhancing the contribution that university teaching and research make to economic growth
 Focusing additional investment towards building our capability to achieve excellent teaching and research

AUS members are important stakeholders in the process of achieving these goals. Your views are already influencing the Tertiary Education Commission, and I'm pleased to see the relationship between you developing well.

I expect to see university staff playing a positive role in the development of plans.

Funding will be stable. The current patterns are too volatile. The government doesn't know from one year to the next how much cash the sector will absorb and where.

More predictable flows of investment will mean we can make better choices about where to build stronger institutions, and where to build new teaching and research and so on.

The tertiary reforms will mean we do a better job of matching courses taught with the demand for skills.

Let me give you one hypothetical example of where the problem has been and how we will do better:

In this example, Ruby is an eighteen-year-old school leaver with an interest in computer networking.

She thinks a career as a network engineer would be enjoyable. She can see exciting companies prospering in the sector, so a career has good prospects.

Today she has a lot of choice between both pubic and private training options.

But how can Ruby know which course will equip her with the right skills?

She could end up investing her time -- and thousands of dollars -- and complete a course that potential employers don't value much.

Now imagine a rapidly growing company designing computer networks for New Zealand exporting companies -- We'll call it Innovate Corp.

Innovate has a full order book and more contracts on offer but it's struggling to find enough skilled network engineers.

Innovate Corp has to retrain most of the graduates it hires because they don't have the skills it needs.

Doesn't it make sense to bring the needs of Ruby and Innovate Corp together?

The example is hypothetical, but it is replicated in dozens of industries, for hundreds of companies and thousands of students around New Zealand at the moment.

The reforms this government is making to tertiary education will put a priority on teaching for qualifications that improve our productivity and innovation.

The government will invest in qualifications that industry wants, and frankly, what the country needs.

When tertiary organisations draw up plans that meet the needs of their regions, they will consult companies like Innovate Corp to find out what its skills training needs are.

Innovate may even have a direct relationship with the tertiary organisation to ensure students have access to the latest technology as part of their training.

Ruby knows that when she finishes her course she'll be equipped with exactly the skills companies like Innovate are looking for. Her investment will pay dividends.

The student will be better off; the business will be better off.

The tertiary organisation will be better placed too; it will no longer have to provide high volume, low value courses just to get by. Its revenue will be more stable and secure.

And the economy gets the benefits of more relevant skills and the resulting improvements in productivity.

The reforms will require tertiary education organisations to build on their strengths and reduce undesirable overlaps and duplication.

The focus will be on collaboration across the sector, not competition.

We need to offer a broad range of education and training nationally with our limited resources.

So we will see differentiation between parts of the sector, and specialisation within the different parts to ensure we can cover the range we need as well as achieve critical mass and increase quality.

Universities have a vital and specialised role to build on.

They will continue to provide research-led degrees and post-graduate education.

They will undertake research, disseminate knowledge and promote a wider understanding and appreciation of lifelong learning.

The role of universities in many of these activities will be explicitly funded - instead of funding focusing as it does now on the number of enrolments from year to year.

Critical mass and expertise is one of the strengths of universities.

Last year when I came here I indicated a National Centre for Tertiary Teaching Excellence was being set up.

It will greatly enhance expertise and critical mass in the tertiary sector.

The Centre will be based at Massey University in Wellington with hubs in partner organisations in Auckland, Palmerston North and Christchurch.

The government is making $4 million a year available for the Centre to promote and support effective teaching and learning across the entire tertiary sector.

The Centre will support all tertiary education organisations and groups who work with teachers and learners.

It will also provide resources and professional development to individual teachers.

I am confident the Centre will strengthen universities and support the continuous improvement of institutions and help lecturers to learn new skills. I urge those of you here today who can be part of this centre to do so,

Colleagues across the sector will collaborate more, just as the reforms of the tertiary sector will require more collaboration between institutions.

The government also wants to see more collaboration within organisations between staff and management.

The Tripartite Forum is a good first step.

As you know, it involves Vice-Chancellors, combined union representatives including your good selves, the Ministry of Education and the Tertiary Education Commission.

It was set up to look at salary, staffing and other resourcing issues, with a view to enhancing the quality of teaching and research in universities.

As direct result of the joint work of the Forum I announced a funding boost of $26 million for the eight universities in June this year.

This money was needed to retain and recruit the best teachers and researchers, and for universities to continue to deliver high quality tertiary education. This funding was an initial contribution to address some immediate funding issues to better enable universities to remain internationally competitive.

I am very pleased with the way the various parties with different perspectives have come together and worked collaboratively.

All three parties have a commitment to help address the funding issues of universities, with a view to increasing the quality of teaching and research. I look forward to continuing my discussions with you and the Vice-Chancellors over the next year. As we move to implement the tertiary reforms we will look to what other steps we can take to strengthen the long-term sustainability of universities and create the conditions that will foster excellent teaching and research.

You have asked for my comments on restructuring underway in a number of institutions. I expect - and even welcome - the idea of change.

I am not a conservative and I do not believe we should strive to keep everything exactly as it is.

Institutions have to adapt to changing circumstance; change is necessary and integral to the success of the reforms I've talked about today.

Some of the restructuring anticipates the reforms. Many institutions are already considering how they could best meet stakeholder needs in the future.

Some would be made anyway. But the best place for those decisions to be made is within the institutions themselves.

The day a minister begins to decide which courses should be offered by institutions will be the day autonomy ends.

Universities are autonomous by legislation, governed by their own councils, and I hope you will jealously defend their autonomy.

University Councils have to reflect the community they serve and everyone who has a stake.

The Vice Chancellor is the legal employer of university staff.

It would therefore be inappropriate for the Tertiary Education Commission, the minister or anyone else to intervene in internal decisions.

The role of the tertiary minister is to ensure that the system is focused and resourced to contribute positively to our store of knowledge, our research and our skills.

The reforms I've talked about today will improve the way universities and other tertiary institutions operate and contribute.

There are still a number of areas of work that need further input from stakeholders, including the AUS, before the system is fully implemented in 2008.

I know you will let me know where you think we can do better.

Before I conclude, I do find myself wondering how I would receive this speech to you today if I was sitting on the other side of the lectern and still a university academic. In my day, the greatest extent to which my learned colleagues and I discussed tertiary education policy and funding was when fiercely competing with each other in the Staff Club as to which of our respective fields of research and teaching was of more importance to students, parents, New Zealanders, our international peers, we could debate on and on.

There was always an underlying assumption that tertiary education, particularly higher education, was of utmost importance to our community of scholars, students, our country.

I believe that this government's underpinning philosophy for the tertiary reforms is no different today, than our Staff Club musings then.

The question behind the framework for the tertiary reforms is how New Zealand’s higher education system can contribute to our country's economic development, our strategies for improving the skills and productivity of the workforce, working with business to find innovative ways of creating value and harnessing new technologies to improve economic performance.

While I may have previously seen this philosophy as being purely utilitarian, be assured that this government does not take a narrow, utilitarian view to tertiary education (there are, after all, at least three people around the Cabinet table who are all students and teachers of a general liberal education).

A high quality tertiary education system includes universities that can measure and indicate their success comparatively to any other university in the world, will be a custodian of our diverse cultures, languages, history and worldviews. This is a key foundation to strengthening our great country's national identity.

Quality teaching and research in the tertiary system will not only bring economic benefits to the beholder but improve social outcomes and personal well being, and is essential to the development, health and security of New Zealand families, young and old.

Thank you.

ENDS

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