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Time passes

14 December 2023 | news

Chris Whelan
Chief Executive
Universities New Zealand – Te Pōkai Tara

It was exactly ten years ago that I started at Universities New Zealand – Te Pōkai Tara. In the ensuing decade I’ve lost some hair but gained a massive appreciation for our universities and the role Universities New Zealand – Te Pōkai Tara (UNZ) plays in supporting them.

In the same week that I mark my anniversary with UNZ, we are also leaving our current offices and moving about fifty meters to a new smaller office.

This has forced the UNZ team to take a close look at a thousand or so paper files that had been sitting in our filing room.  Most had been untouched for more than a decade.  All had to be carefully reviewed to see what needed to be kept and what could be disposed of.

In reviewing the files, I made a number of discoveries.

At one level I was able to explore and better understand the quality assurance system that had guided our universities for almost exactly 150 years – from the University of New Zealand that operated from 1874 to 1961, then the University Grants Committee from 1961 to 1989, and then the New Zealand Vice-Chancellors Committee (now known as Universities NZ) that has operated since 1989. 

New Zealand is one of just two jurisdictions (along with the province of Ontario in Canada) that has vested statutory responsibility for quality assurance within the university system with the universities themselves.

What might, on the face of it, have turned out to be a recipe for collusion and low quality ended up being anything but that.  The records speak to 150 years of dedicated university leaders bringing their deep understanding of what makes a university to quality assurance.  The records show a quality system that until this day is led by people who want to deliver world-class teaching and research and to find the settings that will unlock true and lasting value for every learner and every end-user of knowledge generated at a university.

We remain the only country in the world with every university ranked in the top 500 of the globe’s 27,000 or so degree conferring institutions.  That would have been a lot harder without academic experts sitting inside our universities – refusing to support anything but the highest standards and a genuine commitment to quality and relevance in our teaching and research.

The other really notable discovery (to me anyway) was the sheer amount of change the university sector has gone through. 

It’s true that universities often present themselves to the world through images of centuries-old ivy-clad buildings and graduation ceremonies imbued with formality and tradition.  But, the reality is that they are institutions that are in constant change.  Here are a few things I noted in looking at the records of our various committees:

  • Twenty years ago, most students were accessing computers via university computer labs on a wired network. Now most students use networks to access resources via their own laptops, tablets, and phones.
  • Twenty years ago, students went to libraries to access books. Library searches were mostly conducted via the library catalogue using a library terminal.  Now library resources are accessed from anywhere there is a wifi connection.
  • Fifteen years ago, 60-70% of university library expenditure was on physical books and magazines. Now 70-80% of that spend is on electronic resources.

And there are countless other examples showing that nearly every aspect of teaching, learning, and research have radically changed in the past few decades.

There is a long history of universities being at the cutting edge of new development.  The records are full of decisions around high-performance computer networks, new pedagogies for learning and teaching, and new ways of designing campuses and spaces to better support a rapidly growing and hugely more diverse population of both students and staff.

I wonder what our universities will look like twenty years from now.