Featured Controversy

The New Zealand "Green Paper on a Future Tertiary Education" and Its Critics: A New "Account" of Knowledge

* Overview
* Selected Documents
* Update: Government "White Paper" Released (Nov. 1998)


--Alan Liu, March 30, 1998

A major controversy in New Zealand over the restructuring of higher education has come to international attention with the publication of a short article in Nature ("New Zealand's Universities Face 'Privatization' Bid," Mar. 26, 1998 [press "Continue" after the free registration process]). Dissemination of the issues over the Internet has also brought the matter to wider attention.

The controversy follows the publication on Sept. 11, 1997, of the New Zealand government's Green Paper on "A Future Tertiary Education Policy for New Zealand. Green Papers are preliminary, trial-balloon versions of policy-setting "white papers" intended to help shape legislation.[1]

Following up on the previous transformation of New Zealand's Department of Scientific and Industrial Research into ten Crown Research Institutes organized as private corporations (accompanied by significant reductions and shiftings in staff[2]), the Green Paper proposes a sweeping reimagination of higher education in New Zealand.

It binds education to the national goals of:

It argues that these goals can best be met through (among other proposals):

Both its stated goals and proposals are undergirded by a business discourse that may be audited in such key vocabulary as follows:

Of acute, if problematic, interest to academics is the care the Green Paper takes to accommodate (or, depending on one's view, co-opt) both the traditional academic ideal of "academic freedom" (explicitly protected in the document[14]) and the more recent academic agenda of multicultural diversity (the status of the Maori and Pacific Islanders figures largely and repeatedly in the Green Paper).[5]

Also of special, if unpredictable import, is the emphasis on the need of New Zealand and its educational system to embrace globalism. What gives this topic a special twist is the fact that 60 percent of New Zealand university staff come from abroad.[15] On the one hand, the intertwining of the educational labor force with the global economy might be seen to strengthen the government's view that higher education is increasingly accountable to the global forces that press ever more closely on an island nation.

But on the other hand, the very fact that a majority of tertiary-education staff come from overseas may make the government position abnormally vulnerable to criticism from the international academic community.

Criticism of the Green Paper from academics within New Zealand has been extensive, starting with responses by groups, institutions, and individuals to the government's call for "public submissions". The New Zealand Association of University Staff (AUS), for example, submitted a detailed critique whose summary leads off,

There is a fundamental philosophical conflict between the market-driven model embodied in the Paper and the maintenance of a democratic, affordable and participatory system of public education that has international standing.

The AUS also issued a press release titled "Don't Corporatise the Tertiary Education Sector!" and created in the Tertiary Education section of its Web site an archive of documents, articles, and links related to the Green Paper. Particularly useful in gauging the depth of the controversy in New Zealand is an AUS bibliography on the topic, which includes both citations of official documents and a large listing of commentary and criticism. The date of such entries in the bibliography as Michael Peters, ed. The Corporatisation of New Zealand Universities, Access 12, nos. 1-2 (1994) indicates that the underlying elements of the present controversy have been building since the late 80s and early 90s.

But it is criticism from the international academic community that appears to be one of the main strategic ploys of New Zealand critics.

The government's thrust in the international direction is clear, as in the paragraphs in the "Overview" to the Green Paper that peg higher education to the global economy and the information economy:

Tertiary education will take on a greater international dimension. Quality standards and qualifications in New Zealand education will need to reflect global standards. New Zealand tertiary providers will develop more relationships with overseas providers. Growing world-wide competition for students will have an impact on the number of overseas students attracted to New Zealand and the number of New Zealand students heading overseas to study.

A . . . related, trend is developments in information technology. Advances in information technology have begun to break down international and national barriers to tertiary education and the way it is delivered. It will become easier for New Zealand students to access tertiary providers in another part of the country, or even foreign tertiary providers, without leaving home.

Equally incisive, therefore, is the riposte of critics also concerned to stay on the cutting edge of globalism. Following on its statement that "There is a fundamental philosophical conflict between the market-driven model embodied in the Paper and the maintenance of a democratic, affordable and participatory system of public education that has international standing," for example, the AUS Submission in response to the Green Paper aggressively submits the matter to the court of international opinion:

We believe that the Paper's proposals are inappropriate to universities, or to a public tertiary education system, and in many respects are more suitable to the objectives and values of private sector industry. The Review itself has been, in essence, not concerned with 'education' at all, but rather with the finance and administration of institutions.

If all, or most, of the Paper's proposals are implemented then the changes would be unprecedented internationally. They would, in fact, result in a completely different system of university, and tertiary, education that would lack international credibility.

And the "information economy" aspect of the globalism issue is exploited both in the AUS's critical Submission on Communications and Information Technology and the use of the Internet to broadcast the controversy internationally.

The internationalizing strategy of the critics appears to be paying some dividends. The Nature article notes that the AUS "has obtained the backing of 16 international affliated organizations in a resolution to 'condemn' the government for its 'efforts to convert universities into business entities.' " And it adds that the International Conference of University Teacher Organizations will soon put New Zealand on its "grey list" warning academics dealing with New Zealand about "the deterioration of working conditions, collegial governance and academic freedom."


Selected Documents

Update: Government "White Paper" Released (Nov. 1998)

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