Minister for Tertiary Education Steven Joyce opened the week threatening to force the University of Auckland to take more engineering students. The New Zealand Herald reported on Monday that vice-chancellor Stuart McCutcheon believed this could result in layoffs elsewhere in the university.
Mr Joyce told the Herald that, if necessary, he would step in to force change at Auckland University.
“If they want us to be more directive, I’m more than willing,” he said. “I’m watching them really closely to make sure they do respond to what the market wants, and if they don’t, I can go and tell them how many they should enrol for each department.”
TEU responded saying the minister’s threats were a challenge to institutional autonomy and academic freedom.
“The minister is trampling over the University of Auckland’s institutional autonomy and over academic freedom, as legislated for in the Education Act,” TEU national president Sandra Grey said.
“Universities have institutional autonomy in order to ensure that these institutions are able to critique governments, politicians, and ministers, as well as others who hold power in New Zealand. Without institutional autonomy, and with threats such as the Minister has made that ‘I’m watching them [University of Auckland] really closely’, our universities risk becoming puppets of the state.”
But by the next day the dispute had apparently subsided, with the Auckland vice-chancellor telling Radio Rhema “that contrary to media reports, the institute is assuredly responding to the Government’s wish to see more engineering graduates”. Then other vice-chancellors quickly came to the minister’s side as well, with AUT’s Derek McCormack supporting Steven Joyce and Massey’s Steve Maharey telling National Radio that the government was reasonably entitled to expect more engineering students and he doubted it would follow through on its threats.
Meanwhile TEU’s University of Auckland branch launched an online petition to caution the Minister to reconsider his words and actions. Over 600 people had signed the petition by yesterday evening. Sandra Grey also submitted a blog post on the issue to The Standard.
Sandra Grey said it is ironic that the minister seems to be using his government powers to tell an independent entity that it must respond to the market, even though it is his earlier budgetary intervention into tertiary education funding that is creating the market distortion.