TEU submission on university governance

Posted By TEU on Dec 16, 2013 |


Submission of the Tertiary Education Union Te Hautū Kahurangi o Aotearoa

Ministry of Education (Governance Review) on the “Review of the legislative settings for university governance”

12 November 2013

For further information please contact:

Jo Scott
Policy Analyst
Email: jo.scott@teu.ac.nz

Introduction

The Tertiary Education Union Te Hautū Kahurangi o Aotearoa (TEU) welcomes this opportunity to respond to the consultation document “Review of the legislative settings for university governance”.

The TEU is the largest union and professional association representing staff in the tertiary education sector (in universities, institutes of technology/polytechnics, wānanga, private training establishments, and REAPs).  Our members recognise the important role that councils play in decision-making within institutions, and the extent to which these decisions can directly affect student learning and the many responsibilities of staff (within and outside the institution).  TEU members also recognise the importance of retaining and strengthening important values that underpin the work of our universities, including broad-based and democratic participation in decision-making and ensuring that these public institutions reflect the needs and values of our society and communities.

General comments about the proposal

The TEU is concerned that the proposal to review legislative settings for university councils is premised on a poorly-evidenced argument that the current representative model limits the ability of councils to respond in a timely way to changing environments, populations, and skill and knowledge requirements.  The proposal provides no credible evidence or argument to support this claim.

Additionally, the proposal argues that changes are needed to ensure universities are able to meet a number of identified future challenges.  In fact, these challenges are not new – universities are already well underway in terms of addressing these and a myriad of other issues that they must face in an increasingly complex society.  The proposal provides no compelling argument that a change to the governance model for universities would assist in meeting these challenges.

The proposal also assumes that the current representative model is ineffective and negatively affects the ability of councils to fulfil their duties.  Again, what is the evidence base to support this claim?  This assumption is inconsistent with the proposal’s acknowledgement that universities are performing well.

Tertiary education institutions, like other public institutions, have distinctive characteristics that differentiate them from organisations in the private or commercial sector, such as the need to maintain close relationships with the communities they serve.  Therefore, corporate models of governance are a poor fit with the work of these institutions.  Meredith Edwards notes this in her 2002 review of the governance of New Zealand tertiary education institutions:

…the concept of stakeholder governance, and hence the participatory element of good governance, assumes a greater degree of importance than might be the case if a review were being undertaken in the private sector. Under the stakeholder governance approach, boards are accountable to a broad range of stakeholders, rather than just to shareholders (for corporate) or to government (for public entities). The decisions and actions of boards must be judged on criteria that go beyond financial performance to include impacts on human capital and communities. ((Edwards, M. (2002) ‘Review of New Zealand Tertiary Education Institution Governance’ Ministry of Education, Wellington, New Zealand.))

The TEU is concerned that when assessed next to the proposals in the Draft Tertiary Education Strategy 2014-2019 ((Ministry of Education. (October 2013). ‘Draft Tertiary Education Strategy 2014-2019’ Wellington, New Zealand)), the changes proposed for university councils are simply a mechanism to further push market and business models onto the sector, at the cost of the core goals for universities – set out in the Education Act 1989 (and subsequent amendments), section 162(4)(a).

The Act specifies that the characteristics of a university are that they are primarily concerned with more advanced learning; that their principal aim is to develop intellectual independence; that research and teaching are closely interdependent and that most of their teaching is done by people who are active in advancing knowledge; that they meet international standards of research and teaching; that they are a repository of knowledge and expertise; and that they accept a role as critic and conscience of society.  At no point does the Act state that a core characteristic of universities is that they are businesses.  Universities are not businesses – they exist for fundamentally different purposes, and therefore operate by a different set of requirements.<

In business, the primary goal of the organisation is to deliver returns to shareholders or the business owner (i.e. make a profit), and business values in general are aligned to this purpose.  In contrast, universities are public institutions that as part of their accountability responsibilities, must retain strong links to the communities they serve.  This is in part achieved through the representative nature of council composition which includes staff and student representatives, (universities are body corporates composed of those who teach, research and learn, and those that support these functions).  Staff feel invested in an institution when they are directly involved in its governance.  The presence of students in governance roles helps to ensure responsiveness to student needs and interest – particularly important when the democratic voice for students has been largely shut down as a result of the legislative changes brought about with amendments making membership of student unions voluntary.

The changes proposed by the review will diminish universities’ connection to communities and the New Zealand public, to alumni, and to those who undertake the tasks that constitute a university.  Further, we are concerned that narrowing the knowledge, expertise and experiential capacities of members of university councils will mean these institutions are less able to adapt or respond to changing demands and circumstances.

The objectives of the review are stated as:

The government seeks governance settings for universities that:

  1. Enable councils to be nimble and efficient
  2. Equip councils with people highly capable of governing universities
  3. Clarify duties and accountabilities for individual council members

We see no evidence in the proposal that indicates university councils are not currently meeting these objectives, and wonder who will decide the criteria for what makes people ‘highly capable of governing universities’, particularly if those who actually constitute the university are excluded or reduced to token numbers.

Additionally, since universities are characterised as repositories of knowledge, the qualities of ‘nimbleness’ and ‘efficiency’ are insufficient criteria for deciding a governance structure that is required to take a long view in terms of planning and educational decision-making.  We would argue that a much more appropriate criterion would ensure a structure that supports important membership qualities such as wisdom, experience and understanding of the diverse needs of our society, with a strong commitment to enduring values rather than short-term calculations.  We hope that the reference to ‘efficiency’ does not imply that universities are expected to serve New Zealand and international business needs for ‘training’, without concern for cultural, creative, historical, humanitarian, social, or democratic values.

We are concerned, when reading this document against the proposal for review of wānanga governance, to find absolutely no reference in the objectives for the university review to Tiriti partnership rights and responsibilities, or to the importance of having council members who are able to govern in accordance with tikanga and āhuatanga Māori.  Given that Māori learner achievement is a priority for the whole sector, and that universities, as public tertiary education institutions have Tiriti responsibilities via their relationship with the Crown, we would expect specific reference to these elements in the review objectives.  This points to the need to include in the criteria for university governance structure and membership, understanding of New Zealand society, both historically, in the present day, and in terms of likely future needs, and how universities may need to develop to serve current and future students, their whānau/families, and the nation as a whole.

In October 2012, the TEU delivered a copy of our position paper “Independence, responsible autonomy, and public control: they keys to good governance in tertiary education” to the Minister for Tertiary Education, and other MPs.  In this paper we argue that:

Ensuring strong tertiary education governance is crucial if our universities, polytechnics, wānanga and other places of education are to fulfil their roles as leaders in social, economic, human, environmental, and scientific progress. ((Grey, Sandra. (16 August 2012) ‘Independence, responsible autonomy, and public control: the keys to good governance in tertiary education’.  Position paper prepared for the Tertiary Education Union.  Retrieved from http://teu.ac.nz/2012/10/independence-responsible-autonomy-and-public-control-the-keys-to-good-governance-in-tertiary-education/))

The position paper also presents a number of core principles that need to underpin decisions about tertiary sector governance:

  1. Diversity is necessary for the health of the tertiary education sector, including diversity between and inside governance bodies and institutions themselves
  2. Tertiary education institutions require autonomy from the political, social, and economic elite of the nation in order to best serve the interests of all New Zealanders
  3. Institutional autonomy enables the academic freedom so crucial to economic, social, scientific, and human discovery
  4. Including staff, student, and community representation in the governance bodies of the tertiary education sector will ensure educational and pedagogical decisions will be at the centre of decision-making
  5. Good decision-making  in the tertiary education sector requires sound, open, and on-going input from those who work and study in the tertiary education sector
  6. Staff, student, and community involvement in tertiary education decision-making is necessary in order for these groups to have confidence in the decisions made.

We are extremely concerned to see how few of these principles, which are reflected in the current legislative requirements of the Education Act, appear in the proposals outlined in the consultation document.  If change to the governance structures of universities and wānanga occur, they must be based on these principles, which would ensure open and democratic processes, and a return to public control and responsible autonomy for the institutions themselves.  ‘Corporatising’ these structures will only further remove them from the communities they are set up to serve.

Responses to the consultation questions

  1. What do you consider are the advantages/disadvantages of this proposal to decrease the size of university councils?

Universities are large and complex institutions.  They must maintain relationships with a wide range of stakeholders, including iwi, community, discipline, research, student, civic, social, cultural, and business interests, both nationally and internationally.  They are composed of a diverse staff population and must respond to the needs of an equally diverse student population.  Enabling quality teaching, learning and research is a university’s overriding purpose.  Therefore it is critical that university governance structures are able to respond effectively to this diversity and complexity.  This is best achieved through a broad-based council membership with a large enough range of expertise, understanding of the value of knowledge-creation, skills and experience, to enable issues to be thoroughly debated and decisions made that contribute to the fulfilment of the university’s essential goals.

A reduction in council membership means the loss of this diversity and the quality of decision-making.  It will mean that decisions are likely to be made on narrower criteria, and risks reflecting the view of only a few sectors of New Zealand society.  Views from outside the dominant paradigm (which currently emphasise economic views and a short-term perspective) are likely to be overlooked.

  1. What do you consider are the advantages/disadvantages of this proposal to make council membership requirements more flexible?

We disagree that the proposed changes will create greater flexibility.  In fact, we predict greater rigidity will occur as a result of the dangers of ‘group think’ stemming from a more limited selection of council members.  At a time when many corporations are recognising the value of diversity for robust decision-making, we believe that the proposed changes will take university governance in the opposite direction.

University councils currently have the flexibility to co-opt members; their current size makes this possible, thus also providing the opportunity to draw in particular expertise, skills, knowledge, community linkages, or experience as required.  Although the consultation document notes that “Individual councils would not be prevented from appointing…staff, students and other stakeholders”, we have little confidence that this will occur.  We doubt that a council whose members are appointed by the Minister, who, in turn, appoint other members, will have the knowledge, judgment, or desire to select staff or students who are likely to challenge the group ethos of those making decisions about their selection.

We are also concerned that the changes will further limit opportunities for women to participate in these governance structures, an issue the Government has expressed concern about.

  1. What do you consider are the advantages/disadvantages of this proposal to require the Minister and councils to appoint council members capable of governing universities?

Given the very strong business focus evident in the Draft Tertiary Education Strategy 2014-2019, we can only assume that the intention here is to promote the appointment of ‘professional’ board members from the commercial sector, rather than individuals who have direct experience of tertiary education.  This is of concern, especially given that universities are educational institutions.

Universities are based upon the assumption that knowledge is a core criterion for judging capability; therefore we wonder on what basis this capacity will be assessed by those without experience in university decision-making?  The gap between what a commercial director knows about commercial entities and what they are likely to know about appropriately governing an educational institution is huge.  If these proposals are adopted, and university councils are reduced in size, the likelihood of such commercial appointments being the majority membership is high.  This also then limits the council’s ability to adequately scrutinise university management and educational decisions, because a reduction in diversity of council membership means it is likely the council must rely solely on reports from the vice-chancellor, rather than obtaining a broader range of view from others participating in the institution.

The current model with its mix of representatives from staff, students, and alumni/ae, together with expertise-based appointments and government appointments, has produced councils that are capable of governing universities.  Upon what basis – in knowledge, experience, or research – do the proposals to change the current experientially-validated model of selecting council members derive?

  1. What do you consider are the advantages/disadvantages of this proposal to clarify the duties and accountabilities of individual council members?

There are already clear statements as to the duties and responsibilities of council members in the current legislation.  University councils regularly discuss these duties and responsibilities in workshop and orientation sessions.  Without any specification as to what needs to be clarified regarding roles and responsibilities in the consultation document, we have no way of knowing how the definition of individual council member duties and accountabilities might be changed or what evidence exists to suggest that there is any need for change.  Given our role as representatives of university staff who are experts in research and the acquisition of knowledge, we believe that the consultation document has failed to meet our expectations in this regard.  We would appreciate further information that discusses perceived problems in relation to council members’ understanding or fulfilment of their duties and responsibilities, so that we can make an informed assessment of the strength of the case for any change in expectations of council members.

Final comments about the proposal

The proposal to change the governance model for universities from a stakeholder-representative model to one more akin to models used in the commercial sector is fundamentally flawed, because it assumes universities have the same characteristics and responsibilities as private sector organisations.  The proposal also assumes that a stakeholder representation governance model is ineffective when compared to a smaller ‘skills-based’ model.  The proposal offers no evidence for this argument, which is also not supported by other comments describing universities as ‘performing well’.

The TEU therefore does not support the proposal to change the model for university governance.  The proposal will undermine core functions of universities, including their role as critic and conscience, and will affect important relationships universities must maintain – with communities, iwi and other organisations.

References

 

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