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From the Chair: The need for universities only grows, but not funding

15 December 2022 | news

By Professor Jan Thomas
Vice-Chancellor, Massey University
Chair of the New Zealand Vice-Chancellors' Committee

When I began my two-year term as Chair of Universities New Zealand – Te Pōkai Tara in January 2021, we were less than a year into the global Covid-19 pandemic and for my first ‘From the Chair’ column I wrote that it was a time we needed universities more than ever.

As my term ends, that need has only grown, not just because of the rises and falls and rises again of Covid-19, but also because of the other challenges we face in New Zealand and around the world, be they climate change, the cost of living, high interest rates, impending recession or ongoing inequities.

With our world-class research, our thought leadership and our research-led teaching, New Zealand’s eight universities are key to tackling these and other challenges, as well as to discovering or creating fresh opportunities to enhance future wellbeing, prosperity and success.

Covid-19 brought home to New Zealanders and our government the many multidisciplinary contributions universities are here to make in such a crisis – across areas ranging from epidemiology, virology and immunology to public health, law and product design.

New Zealand’s universities are at the forefront of climate change research and developing more sustainable ways of living, including researchers contributing to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

We are trainers of most of the country’s researchers and home to nearly 60% of them. This is why we expect to be key contributors to the major overhaul of the research, science and innovation system promised in the Government’s new Te Ara Paerangi – Future Pathways White Paper.  

With inflation soaring and a planned recession on the way, a university education is valuable to school leavers in many different ways. Yes, monetarily (graduates generally earn $1.5 million more over their working life than someone with just a school qualification); but also for the transferable critical thinking and adaptability a university education provides. These will be essential to navigate the changing nature of work predicted for the years ahead.

Of course, the benefits aren’t limited to graduates themselves. The knowledge and skills graduates bring to the workplace and other areas of New Zealand life benefit us all. New Zealand’s gross domestic product is up to 6% higher because of the impact a university education has on the productivity of workers with a degree. As well as being more productive themselves, they lift the productivity of other employees in their workplace. This accounts for around 0.8% of gross domestic product.

Given the crucial role universities play in New Zealand life – our contributions to the economy, government, society, health, culture and more besides – and given our keenness to play that role to the full, not to say increase it, we are constantly disappointed by successive governments’ failure to reflect this through sufficient funding.

The two budgets of my term as Chair were no exception. Take this year’s. Research and teaching in our universities are major contributors to almost every spending priority in Budget 2022 yet were barely mentioned.

Although universities’ operating costs in the past 15 years have increased by more than 80%, Student Achievement Component (SAC) funding has increased by just over 50%. Budget 2022 included a 1.2% increase from January 2022 and 2.75% from January 2023. This was well below inflation, with the latest consumer price index at 7.2%. Universities’ expenditure in any case exceeds inflation, because of the more expensive nature of the items we have to pay for.

Universities New Zealand continues to press the Government to better invest in our universities. If it is a time we need universities more than ever, it is a time we more than ever need the Government to listen.

New Zealand’s Covid-19 border closures and international travel restrictions hit universities hard, depriving us of the international students important not only to our finances but also to the cosmopolitan culture of our campuses and the communities in which they sit. The full reopening of borders from August has seen our international student numbers start to recover, but it is only a start, and it will be several years at least before they stabilise to anything resembling pre-2020 levels.

I can only praise the hard work towards this end being conducted by our universities’ staff, overseas agents, organisations such as Education New Zealand and government ministers and officials.

Covid-19’s impacts on university life have been many. I can’t speak highly enough of how students and staff have risen to the challenges presented, whether providing the research that has helped tackle it and its impacts, adapting to teaching and learning remotely or supporting each other and the wider community both on and off campus.

Although Covid-19 loomed large over my two years as Chair, universities’ staff continued to contribute to such large-scale programmes as Te Ara Paerangi; implementation of the mandatory pastoral care code of practice introduced from January 2022; and production of a Trusted Research–Protective Security Requirements Guide for senior university leaders.

Universities’ contributions to these projects were coordinated by Universities New Zealand, which plays a vital and much appreciated role representing the shared interests of the sector.

In 2022, this included launching Te Kei and Piki Ake, important programmes to support the career development of Māori academics and researchers, of which Universities New Zealand and all those involved can be particularly proud.

It has been an honour to be Universities New Zealand’s Chair these past two years and I now hand over to the capable hands of Professor Cheryl de la Rey, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Canterbury.

Meri Kirihimete me te Hape Nū Ia.