Cullen: Address to the AUS Conference

Published: Tue 29 Nov 2005 10:13 AM
29 November 2005
Address to the Association of University Staff Conference
Mercure Hotel, Upper Willis St, Wellington
Thank you for inviting me to address your conference.
In my short time as Minister for Tertiary Education I have formed a number of strong impressions of the portfolio. First and foremost, it is a sector where people make a difference. Indeed the sense of momentum in tertiary education is due to the number of strongly motivated staff who are committed to excellence in teaching and research.
By and large, these people prefer to stay on task despite whatever turmoil might occur from time to time at an institutional level. Their focus is on engagement with students, with their area of academic expertise, and with maintaining high professional standards.
Beyond that, their view of most matters is quite pragmatic. What they appreciate most from tertiary managers, central government agencies and people such as myself is a stable environment in which to do their work and maintain contact with a group of colleagues (both local and international) with whom they can share ideas and resources.
These people are and will remain the most important asset of New Zealand's tertiary education system.
What this reminds us of is that the basic technology of higher education has remained very stable over many centuries. It is a people-based industry. It is about highly trained scholars and educators working with students to develop their knowledge, skills and intellect.
If we want, we can trace this back to Socrates and his circle of students on the Areopagus in Athens, or to Confucius and his acolytes in the Middle Kingdom, or, to indigenise the concept, to the kaumatua of the early tribal wananga in pre-European New Zealand.
Layers of sophistication have been added, of course. Larger, more diverse communities of scholars. Academic libraries and research equipment. A shift from the passing on of received wisdom to more analytical methods. An increasingly complex taxonomy of academic disciplines. And the rise of government funding as the primary source of finance.
This has meant, on the one hand, that academics are part of a better organised system and are less likely nowadays to be accused in court of corrupting the young and sentenced to death by drinking hemlock. But on the other hand, it has brought the risk of shifting focus away from what happens in that central interaction between teacher and student and towards the various support structures and systems instead.
A key part of my agenda, and that of Steve Maharey and Trevor Mallard before me, has been to get a stronger focus onto the quality and relevance of teaching and learning. There have been many in the sector who have asked for a closer definition of these terms:
- Quality according to what benchmark? Do we mean comparability with academic institutions overseas? Or do we mean a more specific "fitness for purpose' aligned to the set of skills and competencies that enable people to thrive and adapt in the workforce?
- And when we speak of relevance, do we mean a response by tertiary providers to the short-term skill needs and research priorities of the economy? Or are we asking for some degree of prescience, whereby we want providers to equip students for the world they will encounter in five or ten years' time?
The economists amongst us may wish to put quality and relevance on the two axes of a diagram and posit a downward sloping curve showing how they relate. In other words, the more one aims for quality, the more removed one gets from the real world and its priorities and timeframes. And the more relevant one is to real world and real time concerns, the less one can practise critical thought and reflection.
This points us towards the familiar paradigm of the distinction between universities and polytechs. The former turn out students with a good grasp of academic theory. Meanwhile, the latter are focused on immediate skill needs with a strong vocational emphasis, and are less concerned about the larger picture.
This is a paradigm that we need to break out of. It has not served us well. Quality ought not to imply graduates who need to be retrained by employers in order to be useful. And relevance means more than just this year's skills.
While it is true that our economy and society needs individuals with relevant skills, we also need people with the depth of understanding and the critical faculty to adapt and absorb new information and new trends. Relevance, unless it is backed up by quality, can leak away fairly quickly. It includes teaching some of the capabilities that allow people to remake their skills over time, to adapt, to add new learning, to remain relevant in a fluid labour market, a fluid business environment, and a fluid community setting.
There is an important sense in which these questions cannot be answered in the abstract. In the early days, there was something of an expectation that the government would engage in close "steering' the sector, and the picture many people seemed to have in mind was of the minister standing on the bridge of the ship shouting instructions to the helmsman and the engineer. "Left hand down a bit, Number Two', and so on.
That misrepresents our intention. We do not intend, nor do we have, a command and control model in the tertiary sector. Even under the best of conditions, the TEC, as a central agency, is never going to have cut and dried answers on what constitutes quality and relevance.
Instead, that requires a higher level of engagement amongst the four key stakeholders in tertiary education: students, tertiary institutions, the government and employers.
With respect to students, the shift is from a focus on enrolment to a greater emphasis on teaching quality and on managing learning programmes toward better outcomes. We need to examine course completion rates, and to minimise the number of students who embark upon programmes of study but get lost in the system through insufficient foresight and planning.
With respect to engagement amongst tertiary institutions, the shift is towards better collaboration, to create networks of provision rather than overlapping and confusing brands. I am talking here about universities collaborating with polytechs and other specialised providers, as well as with each other.
With respect to government, the shift is to expand the dialogue to include not just funding and regulatory issues (important though they are), but also the broad economic strategies encompassed in initiatives such as the Growth and Innovation Framework.
With respect to employers, I recognise that there has been some resistance within universities to the notion of engagement with industry. Universities, it is claimed, are not there simply to meet skill shortages or to engage in commercially-valued research.
That is granted; but they are there to prepare students for the challenges of the new economy, and they do need to focus their research efforts on questions that are relevant to the issues New Zealand faces, be they issues of technology, health promotion, trade, economics or cultural development. When this engagement occurs, the result is more grounded and better quality education.
I am the first to acknowledge that if this shift in emphasis is to occur, then it must be both understood and endorsed by university staff. They are the ones who will build a higher quality, more relevant tertiary sector.
My job is to create the right environment for that to happen. There are many facets to that task; but four key ones are:
- Encouraging a stronger culture around teaching excellence;
- Supporting research that is high quality;
- Promoting salary regimes that provide strong incentives for academic staff to work in New Zealand; and
- A better focus in the overall system for funding tertiary education on rewarding quality and relevance, rather than raw enrolment statistics, as at present.
I will address each of these in turn.
The major initiative towards encouraging a stronger culture around teaching excellence is the creation of the National Centre for Teaching Excellence.
Teaching is a skill set that is not bestowed along with research ability, although often the assumption is that anyone with a graduate degree can teach. It was certainly the case when I first become a lecturer in history. At that time, the quality of teaching was almost a taboo subject, with the result that new lecturers were left to find their own way through a pedagogical wilderness.
Things have clearly progressed since then; but it is very important that create pathways to excellence for tertiary teaching staff.
As you will recall, the government decided in principal on this Centre last year, and we have been working through the details of the design ever since. The current intention, after wide consultation, is to establish the Centre within one of the tertiary institutions, following the model of the Centres of Research Excellence.
This option was chosen over that of a completely standalone entity, or of locating the Centre within TEC. I am hoping that now that these key decisions have been taken, the Centre can soon be provided with a home and its staffing and modus operandi worked out.
On the question of supporting high quality research, the first round of the PBRF was a qualified success. I think most researchers in the sector can see how it can evolve into a helpful mechanism. I would hope that the next full iteration in 2009 will be more widely understood and supported.
On the question of promoting salaries and conditions that provide strong incentives for academic staff to work in New Zealand, the government has been part of a Tripartite Working Group involving the unions and the Vice-Chancellors' Committee. The Working Group has been meeting since July to address salaries, staffing and other resourcing issues.
It is important to ensure that no relevant questions are excluded from the discussion. Thus, in the meetings thus far, the parties have had a free and frank discussion on issues relating to international benchmarking, the sustainability of current salary levels, and the links with funding and fees policies.
Finally, the government has signalled that is wants to achieve a better focus in the overall system for funding tertiary education on rewarding quality and relevance. The current EFTS system is unsatisfactory in a number of regards.
With the exception of a few tweaks, it pre-dates the 2002 reforms and does very little to support the objectives of those reforms. It remains an enrolment based system with little scope for subtlety or sophistication.
As such it also creates incentives for institutions and for staff which sometimes go against what is in the best interests for students. For instance, it tends to encourage large class sizes, a limited lowest common denominator approach to pedagogy, and limited flexibility for different learning styles.
These incentives can hinder innovation and more generally act as a dampener on morale. Moreover, from a taxpayer point of view the current system has thrown up some activities that are highly questionable in terms of value for money.
I am afraid I do not have much to say at the moment regarding what specific alternatives are available. It is a case of "watch this space'.
To sum up, our conviction as a government is that we can and must create a tertiary sector that, without exception, provides education that is high quality in terms of international benchmarks and the expectations of learners and employers, and highly relevant to the skills needed to face the economic and social challenges that New Zealand faces.
These are aspirational goals, rather than the kind of "minimal standards' culture that has often crept in, whereby providers try to work out how they can do just enough to get over the line and qualify for extra funding or a mark of approval.
Tertiary education is a public good. It is absolutely crucial to the task of building the productivity of our workforce and maintaining and strengthening our social systems and our diverse cultural identity.
University staff are a key part of that picture. Your energy and focus and something that we rely upon, and hence your concerns are of great interest to me as minister.
Thank you.

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