Tertiary Education Strategy
The government has recently released a Discussion Document to begin consultation towards a second Tertiary Education Strategy (TES). Some comments on this are warranted, and I will give the Discussion Document a tick and a cross. First, though, it is worth noting that the existing TES had a number of notable failings. Perhaps most obvious of these was the language and rhetoric used. It did not reflect the values and idiom of educationalists, it was unduly instrumental and economistic in its approach, and it tended to assert, in a rather bossy tone, that tertiary education institutions ‘will’ do this or that. (Though I have to say that it was surprising just how cravenly obedient university managers were to all of this!)
The present Discussion Document is a little more promising in that it appears to be more inclusive of a range of educational values and outcomes. Nevertheless, it is still bent on making the sector ‘align itself’ with goals set by government.
It is promising this time round, however, to see the document include some (albeit slight) recognition of academic freedom and the role of ‘critic and conscience of society’ (a role that is a duty of universities under the Education Act). The Discussion Document is still inadequate in this regard (and one hopes that the new TES will make up for this). So, for example, it talks of ‘navigating academic freedom’ as if that were some kind of obstacle, rather than a fundamental quality of higher education and research, insisted upon by the Education Act, and in accordance with which the Minister is required always to act.
It is, in principle, likely that the present government’s strategic direction and funding structures for universities actually breach its requirements to preserve and enhance academic freedom. Governments breach that statutory requirement when they use incentives or planning to change or direct the priorities of universities. The freedom of scholarship and inquiry and the freedom to determine curriculum and to assess students as they believe best meets the requirements of the advancement of learning are not adequately recognized when governments use funding as a bribe to take on governmental values and goals (regardless of how laudable the government’s intentions may be). The Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF), for instance, is a direct interference in academic freedom.
Nevertheless, the staff of universities serve a public good when they are prepared to stand outside of government’s social and economic goals and to critically appraise them – or even to simply ignore them and to direct their attention elsewhere. This is a public good because an advanced and open democratic society requires the maintenance of well-informed debate that can question popular beliefs or political opinions and promote new ideas.