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The colour of the grass on the other side

29 May 2024 | news

Chris Whelan
Chief Executive
Universities New Zealand – Te Pōkai Tara

A particularly interesting part of my job is getting to look at university systems around the world. In addition to reading a lot of articles and stories, I get to touch base regularly with my colleagues in countries like the UK, US, Canada, Australia, and Germany. Mostly this is online, but occasionally this is in-person.

Recently I was privileged to be able to meet with them at a series of meetings hosted in London by Universities UK. 

There were a few things that really stood out for me – things that New Zealand really does better than anyone else, and a few things I think we can learn from. In no particular order:

We are the only system where there isn’t significant public debate about the value of a university education and the quality of our qualifications. There are three things that together are serving us well in this country – and I very much doubt they are what you would expect.

The three things are:

  1. The TEC semi-demand driven funding system that has operated since 2007. From 1999 to 2006 New Zealand operated a ‘demand-driven system which saw government funding any programmes that students wanted to sign up to.  It led to a lot of programmes being offered that sounded good to students, but that didn’t lead to good employment outcomes.  The semi-demand driven system that replaced it in 2007 only saw tertiary education providers funded when they could demonstrate that graduates were ending up in degree-level employment.  It didn’t matter if only 50% of law graduates ended up in jobs like barrister, solicitor, or law clerk, the other 50% ended up in jobs like consultant, general manager, policy director, and chief executive.
  2. The New Zealand Vice-Chancellors’ Committee having joint responsibility for quality assurance in the university sector. For more than three decades now, the Vice-Chancellors have collectively fostered a quality assurance system that ensures consistency and clarity for students and employers without quashing the ability of universities to innovate and evolve.  This practitioner-led and enhancement-focussed approach to quality assurance has generated unparallelled consistency in both the quality of our qualifications and the capabilities of our graduates.
  3. The Integrated Data Infrastructure (IDI) gives approved researchers access to a huge range of government administrative data. We are the only system in the world where we can actually link student records to census returns, and tax returns.  We can see exactly where our graduates end up working, how much they earn, and what jobs they are employed in.  We are able to show that 10 in 11 university graduates are employed in degree-level employment and that, on average, they earn around $1.4m more over their working lives than school leavers.  We are the only system that can bring a massive amount of evidence to our policy and investment choices.

By contrast there are things that other systems do that I think we can usefully learn from. 

These include:

  1. Lifelong learning – Pretty much every other university system seems to be ahead of us in making it easier for people to reskill and upskill throughout their lives and careers. From September 2025 (the start of their academic year), learners in the UK will get a ‘lifelong learning entitlement’ giving them the equivalent of four years of loans towards their studies.  The entitlement will be able to be used for entire degrees or just a few papers here and there when the learner needs them over their lives.  Both the UK and Ireland are investing massively in micro-credentials – encouraging more people to be able to upskill as and when they need those skills.

    In New Zealand our funding system makes it harder for students to just enrol for a course of two when they need them.  Students who don’t complete qualifications are a black mark for tertiary education providers under the current set of Education Performance Indicators (EPIs) that the Tertiary Education Commission uses to assess the performance of tertiary education providers.

  1. Work-integrated learning – with 40% of New Zealand’s workforce now having degrees employers are increasingly using work experience to determine which degree-holders they will actually shortlist for a job. Degree-relevant work experience is fantastic.  Any work experience is better than nothing. Any graduate without at least some work experience will struggle.

    We have a 33-year-old funding system that still funds teaching of subjects the way they were being taught back in 1991.  If the subject had work experience built into the curriculum in 1991 it is still funded for it today (teaching, engineering, etc). If it didn’t have work experience in 1991, it generally isn’t funded for it today (management, accounting, law, etc).

    Other systems are far ahead of us in recognising the importance of ensuring there are opportunities for all graduates to leave university with meaningful degree-relevant work experience.  Australia has just launched its own national strategy for this – recognising that there are major savings to employers if universities (and Government) get this right.

  1. Funding for more equitable outcomes – Successive New Zealand Governments have continually pushed for universities to be more inclusive and to better support priority groups such as Māori, Pacific, and students with disabilities. Despite this, tertiary education providers only receive $355.00 for each student in a priority group.

    Although universities are expected to cross subsidise that $355 from other funding, the small amount has meant universities have had to rule out taking on a number of bright students who would just need more support to succeed than can be realistically achieved on this amount.

    Ireland funds its students through a base rate per student that is then multiplied depending on the subject.  A subject like accountancy is 1 times the base rate.  A subject like veterinarian studies is 4 times the base rate.  For priority groups of students (for example, those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds) there is a further premium of 0.33 on the final rate.

    That’s a level of funding that really makes a difference and something we should be doing here.

  1. Creating more links between universities and the end users of their knowledge and research.
    Other university systems do a lot more than we do to link government and industry with academic expertise. 
  • In the UK, government agencies publish their research priorities for academics and others across the research system to contribute to.
  • In Ireland, government policy people are brought together with academics regularly to talk about their problems and needs and for academics to share what they know. It makes real and lasting connections that are valuable to everyone involved.
  • Almost everywhere else in the world, funding settings encourage a lot more doctoral research to be done with and for end users in government, industry, and civil society. This research is focussed on real world problems and leads to doctoral graduates who have insights and connections that make their further research vastly more valuable, whether they end up in academia or industry.