Greens on Campus: Submission to Parliament on the Education Amendment Bill

The Education Amendment Bill (No.2)

To the Education and Science Committee,

We, Greens on Campus (Auckland), are writing to express our disagreement with the Education Amendment Bill (No.2). We believe that the proposed changes to the university governance structure are part of a trend of government-led commercialisation of our universities. These changes are making universities less democratic and more exposed to both governmental and corporate influence. This trend is worrying as it jeopardises the function of the university as an independent institution that works in the public interest as a public good.

Before outlining how the proposed changes to the university council fit into this trend, we would like to first explain why the trend is worrying. We recognise that, for some, processes of commercialisation are not necessarily upsetting. However, our educational institutions have established a place in our society as independent institutions that provide spaces for students and academics to debate fundamental ideas about how society ought to be organised. We believe this role should be protected.

The current trend is imposing a way of organising society upon universities. This is one where the free function of private commercial activities, with little regulation, is seen as the best way to organise society (and some claim this is the best way to serve the interests of the public as a whole). As recent events such as the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and growing inequality attest, such policies have come seriously into question. The university should be a place where these fundamental questions are debated. This is undermined when certain types of knowledge (those that corporate voices prefer) are privileged over others.

The university needs to provide a space for discussion, critique and innovation. For many students, university is the only safe arena where these activities can take place, as we face pressure in our workplaces and family homes to let the opinions held by our employers and our parents go unchallenged. Universities can only provide this space if they remain independent and promote academic freedom, rather than being interfered with by governmental and/or corporate influence.

The changes to the university council structure, as outlined in the Education Amendment Bill (No. 2), signal the continuation and advancement of this trend. The bill would remove the requirements that protect against corporate influence, outweighing the voices of academics and students on the university board. Under the current requirements, the Minister of Education is allowed to appoint four members to the university council. At the University of Auckland, these four members are:

  • Sir Ralph Norris (former CEO of Commonwealth Bank of Australia, former CEO of ASB bank, and former CEO of Air New Zealand).
  • Peter Kiely (National Party lawyer and NZ Young National’s president 1981-1982).
  • Andrew Ferrier (Fonterra ex-chief and chair of NZ Trade and Enterprise Board).
  • Michael Daniell (Managing Director and CEO of Fisher and Paykel).

It is reasonable to assume that the Minister, with no requirements preventing it, would elect more members from a similar business background. It is extremely unclear to us why external parties, let alone powerful business leaders, should have a greater – or even equal – say in the running of the university. These powerful business leaders are not, and have not been, tertiary educators; instead, they are interested in developing certain types of workers and undertaking research that will benefit their profitability. Additionally, the amendments would reduce the size of the council from between 12 and 20 members to between 8 and 12 members, thereby decreasing the number of academic staff and student voices, and putting the power of decision-making at the university in the hands of fewer people.

Although we recognise that the university should be independent and academic freedom should be protected, we do agree that universities should not be isolated from the wider community. However, the Education Amendment Bill (No.2) goes about addressing this in completely the wrong way. The process of community outreach needs to be two-way with the university and the community engaging with each other bidirectionally. Filling the university council with more corporate voices, who will dictate the rules of the university, is a unidirectional process. Furthermore, ‘the community’ is not synonymous with ‘the business community’. A wide variety of other groups make up our national and global communities and these groups also require the attention of our students and academics. The relationship between the university and the wider community needs to recognise this diversity.

We have written this submission to voice our disagreement with the Education Amendment Bill. We believe this bill is symptomatic of very worrying changes to tertiary education, turning universities into an undemocratic institutions whose primary focus is meeting the demands of the most powerful business interests. Business interest does not equate to public interest.

Thank you for taking the time to read our submission.

Greens on Campus (Auckland).

by Alex Edney-Browne and Umesh Perinpanayagam

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