Academic Freedom and the Proposed Changes to University Council Membership.


What will happen to Academic Freedom when the projected changes in the Education Act 1989 regarding university and wānanga governance become a reality sometime in 2015? It would be a grave mistake if the section of the act guaranteeing academic freedom (s161)[1] were to be ignored or overlooked.

Most criticism of the new legislation has focused on the Minister of Tertiary Education’s preference for eight-member councils following on from the model he imposed on the polytechnic sector five years ago. But strong opposition, especially from the university sector, probably will ensure that most universities will make use of the 12 places potentially available on each University Council. This is a significant reduction in numbers from the current average of 17 (and maximum of 20). Of the possible 12 places, the Minister will appoint four members and another place is likely to be taken by the Vice-Chancellor. Each council will have to decide how to allocate the remaining three to seven places, a process involving identifying which of the current ‘stakeholder’ groups will be retained and which will be sacrificed.

Across the university sector generally, the main contenders for seats include Maori, academic staff, general staff, students, and alumni. Prudent councils are also likely to want to co-opt members with specific skills related to the particular issues they face. Two other current positions, those of employers and unions, seem to have been quietly forgotten, and those councils with local city seats may think again about these. Clearly there are problems here, not the least being how to ensure the effective functioning of councils while also retaining the knowledge and experience of stakeholder members from the wider university community.

A variety of different arguments have been used to justify the presence of particular stakeholders on university councils: Treaty and equity issues for Maori; academic freedom and academic standards for academic staff and students; worker representation for all staff; student rights; voices for the community and/or alumni. The current changes are driven by the Minister’s perception that councils are not sufficiently nimble, agile or business-focused. Reconciling his drive for a reduction of places with the sector’s call for a genuine stakeholder presence is a major issue.

One solution to help resolve this dilemma is to think carefully about how the Minister’s and councils’ own appointments might be better defined. In particular, there is an emerging view that Maori should belong to these governing bodies not as ‘stakeholders’, but rather as full Treaty partners. From this perspective, ministerial or council appointments should, as of right, include recognised Maori leaders or outstanding Maori professionals.

Meanwhile, amongst academic staff in the universities there are concerns that academic staff membership of councils will be compromised. Some universities currently have one academic member selected by their Senate or Academic Board, and another elected by academic staff. In others, up to three elected academics sit on Council. A major fear is that in the future there will be space given for only one academic staff member on each council. This is problematic as University are required by statute not only to govern themselves effectively, but also to take a broader view as ‘critic and conscience of society’. University councils therefore need to not only look to their own affairs, but to consider some issues from a wider perspective.

We argue that one academic member on Council is inconsistent with the intention of Parliament “that academic freedom and the autonomy of institutions are to be preserved and enhanced”. Past experience suggests that some councils have struggled to understand the need for universities to act ‘as critic and conscience of society’, and that some vice-chancellors have failed to provide informed leadership on such matters. In these circumstances, the primary responsibility for defending the principles of academic freedom and academic standards invariably falls on the academic staff members of council.

University councils and their wider communities need to ensure that a sufficient number of academic staff positions are retained in their new council formats. The presence of experienced academic staff on councils provides the best guarantee that academic freedom, academic standards and institutional autonomy will be upheld in the way and to the degree originally intended by Parliament.

The Education Act 1989, Section 161 Academic freedom

(1) It is declared to be the intention of Parliament in enacting the provisions of this Act relating to institutions that academic freedom and the autonomy of institutions are to be preserved and enhanced.

(2) For the purposes of this section, academic freedom, in relation to an institution, means—

(a) the freedom of academic staff and students, within the law, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions:

(b) the freedom of academic staff and students to engage in research:

(c) the freedom of the institution and its staff to regulate the subject matter of courses taught at the institution:

(d) the freedom of the institution and its staff to teach and assess students in the manner they consider best promotes learning:

(e) the freedom of the institution through its chief executive to appoint its own staff.

(3) In exercising their academic freedom and autonomy, institutions shall act in a manner that is consistent with—

(a) the need for the maintenance by institutions of the highest ethical standards and the need to permit public scrutiny to ensure the maintenance of those standards; and

(b) the need for accountability by institutions and the proper use by institutions of resources allocated to them.

(4) In the performance of their functions the Councils and chief executives of institutions, Ministers, and authorities and agencies of the Crown shall act in all respects so as to give effect to the intention of Parliament as expressed in this section.

Section 161: inserted, on 23 July 1990, by section 36 of the Education Amendment Act 1990 (1990 No 60).