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From the Chair: Looking back, looking forward

14 December 2023 | news

Professor Cheryl de la Rey
Tumu Whakarae | Vice-Chancellor
University of Canterbury
Chair of the New Zealand Vice-Chancellors' Committee

December is typically a time of excitement and anticipation as we look forward to a well-earned break and long summer days. As we wind down for the holidays, it is also a time to reflect on the past year.

For universities in many parts of the world, 2023 has been a year of multiple challenges dealing with the lasting impact of the Covid pandemic, volatile geo-politics, the unknowns of generative artificial intelligence as well as economic constraints. For universities in New Zealand, the financial issues have featured in media headlines and have impacted the lives of many.  As I said recently: the financial problem facing the university sector is actually pretty simple. Government controls most of our income. Research funding hasn’t increased for five years and funding per student went up by just 5.5% over the past three years at a time when inflation went up by 17.1%. If income had increased in line with costs, we wouldn’t have a problem. But why does this matter?

You don’t have to look far to see how a university education transforms the lives of individuals, their whānau, communities, and the nation. Universities not only drive the economic activity that creates jobs and enriches the communities in which they are located, they are also a key source of the human capital that will move New Zealand forward in the future. Universities contribute to a more equitable and prosperous society, and they bring people and ideas together across communities, industries and sectors.

In addition to university researchers doing 25% of this country’s research, nearly all of the remaining 75% is done by people who gained their research skills at a university.

For school leavers, a university education is hugely beneficial. Graduates generally earn $1.5 million more over their working life than someone with a school qualification alone. But crucially, a university education also provides graduates with transferable skills of critical thinking and adaptability — skills which will be essential in navigating the changing nature of work in the coming years.

Universities foster diverse perspectives and knowledge which makes for more informed decision making and a healthy, democratic society. With our world-class research, our thought leadership and our research-led teaching, New Zealand’s eight universities are key to tackling the critical issues we face as a country.

Proper funding of our universities is an investment in the future of Aotearoa New Zealand and each one of our eight universities is positioned to support the advancement of our society and economy.

As we approach the end of 2023, my hope is that the Government will see that further investment in our universities is actually an investment in this country’s future.