Marketing the Mind

How the tertiary sector in New Zealand is being hi-jacked into the service of commerce

by Gordon Campbell

The state of tertiary education is one of those issues that can readily trigger quite contradictory responses. Tertiary education is easy to portray as being incredibly important to society, the nation’s route to the Knowledge Economy etc. etc. It is just as easy to stereotype as being hopelessly detached from the country’s pressing needs. If anything, the arguments on both sides are becoming more intense. On the one hand, access to tertiary qualifications and to subsequent, well paid employment is becoming an increasingly unaffordable route for many – while on the other hand, there is growing resistance by government to continue the funding of those areas of academic study that do not deliver quantifiable economic returns.

David Robinson, a visiting Canadian expert on the commercialisation of tertiary education has heard both sides of this argument many, many times before. Robinson is the senior advisor to Education International (the global federation of teachers’ unions) on international trade and higher education issues. Given the funding cuts that are being made to tertiary education in New Zealand – and the impact this is having on the quality of teaching and research – it is easy to portray the sector in fairly apocalyptic terms. Yet are we at risk of mourning the loss of a Golden Age in tertiary education that never actually existed? Has the sector ever really been an Eden where knowledge is pursued and celebrated, free of economic care?

“We certainly don’t defend a mythical Golden Age in universities,” Robinson replies. “ Universities still have to be creative in many ways. The challenge that we’re facing right now is that market imperatives are steering the university in a certain direction. Everyone would probably agree that its important that universities engage with markets to an extent – after all, they train the students to take over jobs. But they do much more than that. There are other important functions. They protect the public interest. They’re a repository of knowledge and culture. And they’re one of the few places – probably the only place – in society where knowledge can be pursued, or should be pursued, for its own sake.”

Are those other functions necessarily at odds with the market-oriented drivers? “ Ideally they shouldn’t be…The problem, globally, is that there has been a pressure from governments to increasingly narrow the focus of universities only to what can be marketable, and only to what can be commercialisable. That shows up in a couple of ways : the increasing cost we place upon students in user fees, in research funding. It means we see a lot of focus on research that will have – or will allegedly have – immediately commercialisable outcomes at the risk of the more basic ‘blue skies’ kind of research.”

The trend lines for the funding of tertiary education in New Zealand do make for grim reading. In a March 2010 speech to the Wellington Chamber of Commerce, Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce had made it clear that money for tertiary education would be tight :
“ It is highly unlikely that there will be any significant cash injections in the foreseeable future.” In fact, there hasn’t simply been a freeze on further funding – there has been a cut as this chart (p 72, table 6.8) from last year’s Pre-Election Fiscal Update makes clear :

In their recent briefings to the incoming Minister, officials also readily conceded the deteriorating financial situation of the tertiary sector :

“Total expenditure on tertiary education as a percentage of gross domestic product (excluding student loans) fell from 2.0 percent in 2009/10 to 1.9 percent in 2010/11. Total tertiary expenditure, excluding student loans, will fall by a further 4.8 percent over the next five years.”

While government funding of tertiary education has declined – and is set to steeply decline further – student fees have risen sharply in recent years :

At the same time, the numbers of full time equivalent staff has fallen in every year, and under successive governments, since 2005 :

This has been happening with the full knowledge in government and among Ministry officials that the demand for tertiary education is on the increase, due to the twin impacts of the economic recession and the demographic effects of the last baby boom. As the Education Ministry explained in its Tertiary Education Strategy 2010-2015 document :

“The economic recession is also raising demand for tertiary education, both in new enrolments and existing students increasing their study load or enrolling in further study. As firms put off growth or downsize to cope with the impact of the recession, more people are seeking to enter education and training to improve their skill levels, and be in a better position to take advantage of opportunities when economic conditions improve.”

Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce shares the same view – that demand for tertiary education is projected to rise (see para 13 in this link to Budget 2010 Cabinet papers) while no new money is being allocated to meet that increase in demand.

“The recession has increased demand for tertiary education in 2009 and 2010 and the increased demand is forecast to remain high in 2011 and beyond.”

The government response in the face of that known increase in demand for higher learning and employment-enhancing skills training – has been to cut and/or freeze funding, watch from the sidelines as the cost barriers to student participation continue to rise and staff numbers fall. Staff / student ratios continue to deteriorate :

For now, as this recent Colmar Brunton study suggests New Zealand graduates seem to be voting with their feet – over the twin concerns about the debt they have accumulated in getting a tertiary education, and pessimism that the New Zealand economy can deliver a job able to justify and repay that investment :

Colmar Brunton youth specialist and qualitative research director Brunton Spencer Willis said fears about jobs stood out in the survey.

“Concerns about just getting a job – any job – featured overwhelmingly high on a number of the questions we asked, much more than the usual student concerns of debt and what to do next. It is no surprise, then, that heading overseas is the plan for many.”

Amid these undesirable trends, the management of demand – at a national level – is also resulting in a considerable waste of scarce resources. Even though there are more students seeking tertiary education in New Zealand than there are places available for them, the country’s universities, polytechnics and wananga continue to be pitted in a costly and competitive race to attract students to their particular facility. A total of $18 million was spent on marketing by 16 tertiary institutions alone, in 2009. As Dr Sandra Grey, president-elect of the Tertiary Education Union has pointed out :

“Why would tertiary institutions spend all this public money promoting themselves when many of them are complaining that they have too many students already ? ”

Cumulatively, the current condition of tertiary education offers a telling snapshot of New Zealand’s failure to plan adequately for its future. Yet taxpayers do happen to fund this sector. When funding for everything else is tightening up, shouldn’t they reasonably expect to see a drive for efficiencies, and for a reasonable economic return from this sector ? “Oh, I think they do get an economic return,” David Robinson says. “And I think one of the things that tertiary institutions haven’t done very well is actually talk about what those returns are, both in economic and non-economic terms. There is a lot of research into [demonstrating] the role of universities for regional and community economic development…”

Theoretically at least, an adequate level of funding for tertiary education should be a win/win for everyone : for individual students, for corporates, and for society as a whole. So, what barriers are preventing it from being seen as a priority area in government spending? “Its largely politicians who are looking for immediate returns, “ Robinson says. That attitude, he believes, tends to chase after false economies. The micro-management of outcomes – especially in an environment that used to be governed and funded on the basis of trust and professional respect – often ends up defeating the very goal it is trying to achieve. “ It is the focus of the Ministry of Sharp Pencils to find out what the exact number is, what the exact economic impact is. Some of the impact can be measured immediately – but with some, it’s a long term issue. My own sense is that we have to work very hard to keep a balance. That is, to keep a balance between funding for basic research and funding for programmes that might not seem to have an immediate market outcome, but which have broader social objectives and impacts. As well as making sure that graduates do get jobs. I don’t think we want to go back to the 15th century institution where universities existed merely for training the elites to take over the machinations of the state, right? We want to make sure we have a broad-based, accessible – and also, equal – higher education system.”

Right now, that wider worldview seems a long way from the mindset in the ascendant at Treasury and within the Beehive. Whereas reasonable access to higher education has been seen as a virtual right within a civilised society, it is now increasingly seen as a privilege, and treated as only one more item among many in the government’s toolkit for generating economic growth. In the light of that change of emphasis, the stakeholders are no longer primarily seen to be students, or society at large via the pool of knowledge that the university creates and maintains, for the common good. Instead, the stakeholders are seen to be students viewed only as prospective employees, government, and business. As a consequence, universities are being treated as something of an assembly line, and one geared primarily to the production of obedient, work-ready recruits for the corporate sector. The same Education Ministry 2010-2015 strategy document cited earlier puts this in bald terms :

“The Government wants a tertiary system that rewards successful providers who demonstrate that they meet the needs of students and employers, for instance through their connections with firms. The system will also reward providers who respond to market signals, including the changing skill needs of industries.”

“Funding allocations to tertiary education organisations will be linked to their past performance. Initially this will be focussed on results achieved by students but will include outcomes, such as post-study employment, as this information becomes available.”

Teaching is of course, but one aspect of this process. The notion of universities as a service centre for business is also, however, intended to spill over into the funding criteria for the research and generation of knowledge that also occurs within tertiary institutions. Here’s the same Tertiary Education Strategy document again :

As well as underpinning good teaching, high quality research is critical for economic growth. However, public investment in research on its own does not drive economic growth: it is firms’ use of research that increases productivity and improves economic performance. We need better linkages between firms, tertiary institutions (particularly universities) and Crown Research Institutes in order to increase the economic returns of publicly funded research.”

“Research in universities needs to combine excellence with impact. In particular, we will ensure that the Performance-Based Research Fund recognises research of direct relevance to the needs of firms and its dissemination to them. We will also ensure there are further incentives for tertiary education organisations, other research organisations and firms to work together.”

It is very hard to square this approach – which aims increasingly to put the functions of tertiary education at the service of the corporate sector, and seeks to channel the available funds accordingly – with section 161 of the Education Act, which makes it mandatory for all parties concerned to respect and support a far wider vision of academic freedom :

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:

This section of the Act goes on to underline the freedom of staff and students to engage in research ; the freedom of the institution and its staff to regulate the subject matter of courses taught at the institution; the freedom of the institution and its staff to teach and assess students in the manner they consider best promotes learning etc etc. True, it also cites “ the need for accountability by institutions and the proper use by institutions of resources allocated to them.” But section 162, which deals primarily with the role of tertiary institutions in higher learning goes on to impose wide obligations on the relevant Minister. It requires him at clause four, for instance to recognise that :

(i) they [tertiary institutions] are primarily concerned with more advanced learning, the principal aim being to develop intellectual independence:

(ii) their research and teaching are closely interdependent and most of their teaching is done by people who are active in advancing knowledge:

(iii) they meet international standards of research and teaching:

(iv) they are a repository of knowledge and expertise:

(v) they accept a role as critic and conscience of society…

These older and far wider aims of tertiary education and the role of the university are enshrined in law as something the government of the day must observe and uphold. These aims are clearly in grave peril, as the government makes its funding dependent on prescribed outcomes that place a compelling onus upon universities to service the needs of business. As of mid 2012, 5% of the Student Achievement Grant ( which is the main bulk fund for teaching in tertiary education) can be with-held, if results are not satisfactory.

Accountability is not the issue. Most tertiary institutions would welcome a true reckoning of their performance and worth, provided the worth being measured was to the society that is paying the funds, and not merely to the business sector that is employing their graduates. Arguably, even the economic returns to business and to the country could be increased in an environment where something more than the readily quantifiable, short term value to business is the prime, or only, accepted yardstick.

One reason being, it is often the so called “blue skies” research that in the end, can be the most profitable, both socially and economically. By micro-managing the outcomes – and prioritising only those academic areas where the costs and benefits can be quantified – are we at risk of killing the goose that in time, might lay the golden eggs? “ That’s certainly the case in research, “David Robinson says. “We have seen some striking examples of that. I can give you an example from Canada that I’m familiar with. In 2000, the federal government launched what it called the Innovation Agenda. It defined ‘innovation’ very narrowly as bringing new products to the marketplace. And it reached an agreement with the universities saying that we will double the amount of research funding that we will give you – but in return we will ask you to triple the amount of the products that you patent, via your commercialisable outcomes.”

All very market logical, one would think, and admirably hard-headed. Yet the result in medical research in Canada for instance, Robinson continues, has been a re-orientation “towards research that essentially ends up with minor modifications to existing drugs and devices. Things that are easily patentable. Yet which don’t really advance the body of knowledge that much. And which don’t really question the causes of diseases in the first place…So when you leave it only to the market, you’re going to crowd out some broader public interest issues.”

In one respect at least, the powers-that-be may be taking section 162 of the Education Act all too seriously : namely, the bit about how tertiary institutions “must meet international standards of research and teaching..”Anecdotally, this may be being perversely translated into a preference, within the publish-or–perish environment of the modern university, for international research that is more of interest to overseas publishers and scholars, and is less New Zealand- focussed. As yet there is little evidence to support this contention, one way or another. But this graph of the percentage of Marsden Fund grants that contain the word “ New Zealand” in the title, suggests it may be a thesis worth exploring :

Graph data supplied by Tertiary Education Union.

What we do know about the available sources of research funding for the tertiary sector in New Zealand is that it is increasingly being channelled through funding vehicles external to the university. Funding via the Marsden Fund for instance grew from $85 million in 2001/02 to $186 million in 2009/10. The Performance Based Research Funding (PBRF) grew from zero in 2003/04 to $244 million in 2009/10.

The ethos driving the growth in PBRF funding in particular is quite evident. Here’s the Education Ministry Tertiary Education Strategy 2010-2015 document again :

“As well as underpinning good teaching, high quality research is critical for economic growth. However, public investment in research on its own does not drive economic growth: it is firms’ use of research that increases productivity and improves economic performance. We need better linkages between firms, tertiary institutions (particularly universities) and Crown Research Institutes in order to increase the economic returns of publicly funded research.

“Research in universities needs to combine excellence with impact. In particular, we will ensure that the Performance-Based Research Fund recognises research of direct relevance to the needs of firms and its dissemination to them. We will also ensure there are further incentives for tertiary education organisations, other research organisations and firms to work together.”

Note especially the line about “We will ensure that the Performance-Based Research Fund recognises research of direct relevance to the needs of firms and its dissemination to them…” (My emphasis.) University research apparently, is to be funded in part at least on its demonstrated ability to disseminate its research findings to business. Given the exceptionally low level of investment in research and development made by the private sector in New Zealand….the aim would appear to be to turn tertiary institutions into the research arms of commerce, as taxpayer funded forms of Corporate Welfare.

One of the obvious problems in the ongoing battle for adequate funding for tertiary institutions is that the political cycles in New Zealand run in short, three year cycles. University research, on the other hand, can be 10 or 20 years in the making. Devising a model that balances a reasonable level of accountability to the taxpayer without putting the tertiary researcher/teacher into a fiscal straitjacket is not an easy thing. For better or worse, the days are long gone when universities could simply be given funds and trusted as professionals to do the right thing with it. How then, are tertiary institutions to be held accountable – if not, ideally at least, in terms of short term financial delivery?

“We are accountable,” Robinson maintains,“ in a much broader sense, in terms of the public interest. There is for instance, the medical research that shows the dangers of certain medications or the environmental impacts on illnesses that can be prevented, and that helps the public in the long run.” [Here, Robinson gives an example of Canadian research with long term public health significance into a certain kind of stomach ulcer theorised as being caused by bacteria. For years, research funding for the project was denied – yet some cobbled together funding for the research ultimately vindicated the thesis, and medications have been derived from it.] Such outcomes will not happen, Robinson maintains, if only the market and the government are allowed to judge the worth of the research.

In many cases, Robinson openly concedes, the returns from university research can’t be quantified. ”I don’t think you can measure it. That’s the problem. If you’re going to measure it only in simple economic returns, you’re going to come up with zero. Or something close to zero. There are certain values, and certain things in life that are outside the market and that are still important. There’s more to life than working and shopping. There are a whole lot of things that enrich our lives like art, culture and so on, and institutions like universities are one of the few places that are repositories.”

Even so, it still remains to be explained why, in New Zealand at least, the downward slide of our universities is so poorly understood by politicians, and attracts little sympathy among the public at large. Part of the explanation may be that universities play – or are meant to play – a kind of “fifth estate” role alongside the media in holding governments to account, and in providing critical thought on the public debates of the day. Could this explain at least some of the suspicion and resentment that has existed in government (since the 1960s and 1970s at least) towards the tertiary sector?

That’s certainly the case in large parts of the world right now, Robinson says. “Part of what I do is deal with academic staff unions around the world. And in the Middle East as the Arab Spring broke out, the first targets were academics. They were the first, because they were the conscience of society, and were the people speaking out. We see it elsewhere around the world, in Colombia, which is one of the most dangerous places to be an academic right now…I think from democratic governments it is more a case of not understanding what the sector does, or what it should do. There’s a kind of economic reductionism that we talked about earlier. And I think there are certain people who don’t like what academics have to say, across the political spectrum.”

Yet the public too, also appear to have relatively little sympathy for the plight of academia. Is this because the style in which the debate is usually couched means that academics all too often seem to be seeking to preserve a bygone era of privilege? That tendency, Robinson replies, may be country specific. “That’s certainly the case in the United States, where universities and colleges have been dragged into the so-called Culture Wars and there has been concerted effort by various Republican forces to try and crack down on so-called leftists hiding out in universities. And there have been campaigns waged against particular individuals. Overall though, in large parts of Western Europe and in Eastern Europe, academics are still held in fairly high regard. They’re seen as people who are independent. And they’re not seen to be corporate shills, or shills for the government – but as people who have a certain independence of thought that they can freely express.”

One thing the public has to do, he concludes, is to take back the ownership of their institutions. “These institutions are embedded in communities. Those communities have to take ownership of them. That means closer ties, and closer co-operation. One of the things that individual professors and institutions don’t do a good job of is to talk about what people do in [tertiary] institutions, and they don’t talk about the research that’s being undertaken. That goes for the research with immediate economic outcomes and for the longer term research. Universities do a bit of that, but the messages often don’t get out.”

Surely, one reason they don’t is that many academics tend to look down their noses at those of their colleagues who take part in public discourse, and who try to engage with the brutal simplicities of mainstream journalism. “That’s true,” Robinson concedes, “ but its also a reflection of the real world structure of universities. In most parts of the world now, there’s a really intensive production-driven research culture that‘s all about publishing x number of research papers each year. It doesn’t leave a lot of time for engagement. That’s not recognised. One of the things that universities could do – in a practical way – is to start recognising people, for playing the role of public intellectuals.”