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Universities at a Crossroads

04 June 2024 | news

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

As I worked with the Vice Chancellors on our submission to the University Advisory Group for the first phase of the current universities system review, I pondered the primary question on the role of universities. I was reminded of the recent scenes of graduation week - a highlight on every university’s calendar. Watching the parades of graduates with their proud families and friends celebrating this important milestone in many ways is what a university is really about – at the very essence we prepare our future leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs.

As Vice-Chancellors we are confident that our university graduates have had the best possible foundation for their future lives and careers. By multiple measures like student progression, completion rates, graduate employment, and research quality, New Zealand’s eight universities already have the best results of any country for which we have comparable statistics.

It’s clear that several key trends are reshaping the role and significance of universities in New Zealand. As we contemplate the future of our economy, and the growing impact of AI, at the forefront of our thinking is that more than 60% of jobs now require at least two and increasingly three years of post-school training or education.  

Linked closely to this, is the fact that education has become one of this country’s largest areas of expenditure and investment. 13% ($21.5 billion) of Government spending is on education. It’s the third largest area of spending after health and social development. Education is a massive investment for everyone involved. Understandably, government wants to see returns from prioritising education. Just as students want to know their lives and careers are likely to be materially better for investing time and money in an education and employers want to know they are benefitting from employing highly qualified people.

Through a world class quality assurance system, all our universities are continually focussed on the quality and relevance of our educational offerings in a fast- changing economy. At one level these cover everything from critical thinking and reasoning, creative problem solving, communicating effectively, and working well with others. At another level, they require graduates who can use modern technologies (including working in virtual environments) and who are comfortable working in blended and hybrid environments.

Beyond teaching, we also know that maintaining vibrant research activities at universities brings benefits across society. Universities account for over half of New Zealand’s fundamental research output, which underpins innovation and workforce development across sectors.

However, New Zealand significantly lags behind OECD averages in key areas like business investment in research, researchers per capita, and open access publishing of findings. There are, however, a number of potential solutions to address this, including prioritising applied doctoral research closely tied to industry needs, reducing workforce precarity through more sustainable research funding models, and facilitating better connectivity between academic experts and public/private sector partners who can utilise their insights.

Universities are fundamentally future-focussed institutions focussed on the long-term. After all, we provide the foundation for careers that change over a lifetime and an approach based solely on direct return on investment is often short-term. Universities need to be able to plan and make commitments longer term. Many of the highly impactful innovations that have been produced by universities and our students have taken time from conception to impact.

Our universities play an indispensable role in creating an innovative, prosperous society for all New Zealanders. By evolving to meet new realities while holding true to their missions, universities can continue enriching New Zealand for generations to come.