07 November 2013

State interference in university governance undermines core values

I was impressed by the news that the University of Oslo has admitted into its institution the mass-murderer Anders Breivik, to study politics from the confinement of his prison cell. The university’s rector gave a reasoned and wise explanation for this surprising decision.
‘It falls on our universities [he said] to take responsibility for upholding democratic values, ideals and practices, including when these are challenged by heinous acts. We are on a slippery slope should we change the rules and adjust them to crimes committed.’
Our values should be strong enough to make it unnecessary to change the rules retrospectively every time someone makes a serious assault upon them.
If New Zealanders were to suffer an attack comparable to the atrocities committed by Mr Breivik, would a university that specializes in distance education, such as Massey University, take an equally brave and well-measured approach? If the law permitted it, would we educate the offender in the discipline of politics? Would we patiently expose him to ideas about democracy, human rights and toleration of difference?
I daresay that Mr Breivik is a difficult and opinionated student. He may not be ready and willing to learn. But I hope that we would be prepared to admit such a man into our politics programme, for the same reasons offered by the rector of the University of Oslo.
I know that many prefer to deny Breivik, or anyone in prison, any such 'privilege.' But the genuine task of higher education is not a popularity contest. It should not be determined by focus groups, nor by the fear of causing controversy. What is our reputation for, after all?
On a more cheerful subject, then, in my classrooms I have seen many people who are honest and eminently employable, including many who are in employment as they study. Knowing that they are employable, my job is to lead them through a process of education, in the hope that they will become both employable and educated. As such, they will go on to do more than just fit in to the pre-fabricated roles of a job description written by someone else.
I see Massey graduates as transforming the jobs they take on, and hence transforming (for the better) the organisations they work for. A higher education is a part of what enables this to happen.
So, those are two reflections upon what higher education could be. Such reflections are timely, as the Minister for tertiary education wishes to make changes to the structure of university councils, the bodies that govern the universities.
He argues (without supporting evidence) that smaller councils will respond more quickly and ably to the challenges facing universities, making universities perform more highly and more competitively. The Minister appears already to know, moreover, in what directions these leaner councils ought to lead their institutions. They need, he says, ‘to respond to areas of high occupational demand, attract more international students, and strategically invest to enhance their particular areas of expertise and competitive advantage.’
Nowadays, it seems, universities take their marching orders directly from the government. And the education of young New Zealanders is not the highest priority.
Government expects universities to seek more funding from sources other than the government; and yet central government demands and gets greater control over the activities and strategic directions of universities. The legal principle that universities are autonomous institutions is ‘honoured more in the breach than the observance.’
If you’ve bothered to read this far, I wager that you are the kind of person who is saddened by the thought of universities turning into degree-factories that care more about the almighty dollar than about learning. In that case, I have sorry news for you, as the aim of the present Minister for tertiary education is to make the universities even more economically utilitarian than they have already become.
The way to do this is to starve them of cash, force them to become competitive and ‘entrepreneurial,’ and then narrow down the range of people who will be enlisted to govern them. People selected onto university councils should be people ‘with governance capability,’ he says.
The Minister has yet to spell out what exact set of skills he believes would constitute such a capability. But I guess he wants more people with a background in law and accountancy (useful skills in governance, I agree), and less emphasis on governance as a function that is representative of communities.
Certainly, the ideal of a university as ‘a community of scholars’ is now so far out of political favour as to sound positively old-fashioned. It’s hard to imagine the wisdom of the rector of the University of Oslo ever making the grade down here.


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