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From the Chair: Invest in the fence at the top

07 June 2019 | news

With its 2019 Budget, the Government has committed to a major investment in areas such as mental health, increasing support for vulnerable children and young people, addressing sexual violence, and making more healthcare available to New Zealanders.

These are all good and necessary things, but most are aimed at responding to problems in society rather than preventing them—the ambulance at the bottom the cliff, rather than the fence at the top.

An investment in wellbeing will generate far greater dividends by finding ways of preventing or reducing harm and suffering.

This is where universities can play a part—both through the research they generate, the skills they provide, and the opportunities they create for the graduates they produce.

Let’s look at each of these in turn.


Universities do a huge proportion of the research that helps identify what works across all areas of wellbeing: 94% of all New Zealand’s research into education and training practices is done by universities; 62% of research in health is done in universities; 70% of research into the provision of community services and public policy is done within universities. Overall, universities are responsible for around 30% of all research done in New Zealand but 2/3rds of the basic research that all other applied research builds on.

University research is a public good and, reflecting that, almost 90% of funding for university research comes directly or indirectly through Government.

Government therefore directly influences the amount of work being done around how we understand and respond to all the factors that affect the wellbeing of New Zealanders.


Universities produce most or all of the professionals and leaders that occupy the roles that drive wellbeing. These include the doctors, social workers, counsellors, clinical psychologists, researchers, and policy specialists that make the system work for New Zealand and New Zealanders. The skills and knowledge they gain while studying for their professions are directly informed by the knowledge and understanding generated through university academics whose teaching is directly informed by their research and understanding of national and international best practice.

Opportunities for graduates

An education is probably the best way of putting a young person on a path towards a successful life and career—regardless of their background and upbringing.

On average a university graduate will earn 88% more annually than someone with just a school qualification. On top of that, they will enjoy an additional set of non-financial benefits that are estimated as being another 1.2 times their income through factors such as:

  • having careers that make them more satisfied and fulfilled
  • living in nicer houses in nicer neighbourhoods
  • being able to enjoy a wider range of recreation and vacation opportunities
  • being healthier and enjoying greater life expectancy and better overall mental health and quality of life when older
  • having healthier, happier and more successful children
  • being significantly less likely to be out of work for extended period
  • being better at managing personal finances and making good financial decisions.

Last week’s Budget was heralded by the Government for its focus on wellbeing, with an emphasis on investment in mental health, child poverty, family violence and homelessness. Unfortunately, universities – a key means through which all these other ills could be alleviated—did not fare as well.

A 1.8% increase in the Student Achievement Component of university funding was announced (up from the 1.6% announced in June 2018 after last year’s Budget). This was welcomed by the sector but needs to be considered in a context where Government is forecasting salaries to rise by 3.4% annually on average over the next five years and where 57% of university costs are salaries.

In short, it’s a budget that will really just help universities stand still.

New Zealand universities now receive funding per student that is just 97% of the OECD average. Funding is 34% higher per student in Australia, 73% higher in the United Kingdom, and 98% higher in the United States.

Universities are under huge pressure to maintain quality and meeting these priorities will require more skills from a sector that is clearly still poorly funded in international terms.

Investment in universities and the education they provide would mean that the universities can deliver the skills needed for teacher education, working with children and for new frontline staff in mental health. We can also make improvements in teaching quality and research, benefiting students, whānau and the wider community.

Such improvements will also help boost our universities, making them more attractive to international students and to high-quality staff, who can further improve the quality of teaching and research.

University researchers and experts already address many of the pressing issues New Zealand faces but with further investment can do even more to inform policy setting and decision-making to progress Government priorities including education, social development, health, economy, and the environment.

Universities can help grow the regions by lifting educational attainment of groups traditionally under-represented at university, and by generating and transferring knowledge that benefits regional communities and their economies. Universities are among the largest employers and creators of jobs in regions where they are located.

Universities can be—and want to be—part of the holistic solution to many of the concerns outlined by the Government in this budget. And we need to be resourced to help deliver that solution.