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Concentrated power risks system failure

New Zealand is an interesting policy case study due to the speed and depth at which new governance approaches can be introduced to public sector bodies, including universities and further education providers.

New Zealand is a small nation (four million people), with highly centralised political decision-making and policy implementation.

It has a unicameral political system (one house of parliament), no federalism, and no activist judiciary.

This means power is concentrated in our 20-person executive.

There is a single public service, so decision-making centres around small policy communities, which can be (and currently are) tightly directed by the political party in government.

Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) and Education ministry are two central agencies responsible for policy and funding decisions for the education sector, while the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) and Universities New Zealand (comprising a Committee of vice-chancellors of our eight universities) are responsible for assuring quality learning and teaching.

The size of the policy community and unicameral political system results in strong coherence between political decision-making and policy implementation.

This coherence is achieved through the government’s Tertiary Education Strategy, which identifies priorities for the sector through the ‘Statement of Tertiary Education Priorities (STEP).’

Individual institutions then outline how they will address these priorities through their investment plans (negotiated with government representatives), which must reflect their institutional profile.

Strategic steering

The outcome of these processes and institutional arrangements is “an obvious alignment of the tertiary education sector with the country’s objectives.”

This strategic steering has been imposed on the tertiary education sector as part of three decades of continuous and unrelenting change in the way tertiary education is managed, funded, and delivered.

The changes begin with the adoption of neo-liberalism, or new right policies, which governments introduced rapidly and deeply in the 1980s and 1990s.

This meant creation of a single ‘sector’ (in legislation in 1989) encompassing all post-compulsory education and placement of for-profit and public education institutions on a ‘level playing field’.

Mass-market model

In the 1990s, we moved from an elite higher education system (where a small number of students received almost full funding to complete tertiary qualifications) to mass market and introduction of fees and student loans.

One of the effects of the move to a mass-market model was a significant increase in enrolments in higher education.

In 1990, about 20.5% of 18 to 24-year-olds studied at tertiary education institutions; by 1998, this had risen to 31.9%. By 2000, the mass-market model had become a problem for successive governments.

There were rising costs because more people were studying and a proliferation of courses and providers, as tertiary education institutions competed in the new ‘open market’ for students and the government funding attached to each student.

Government response

The government’s response was to introduce ‘strategic steering’ of tertiary education.

The newly formed Tertiary Education Advisory Commission (TEAC), recommended more active engagement by the government in the tertiary education system, including policies such as capping student numbers, targeting funding, and funding institutions based on differentiation and the creation of strategic investment plans for each institution.

TEAC was responding to the perceived lack of direction in the sector, the result of which was seen as inefficient use of funding.

Inefficient use

This concern with the inefficient use of resources led to the introduction of New Public Management techniques to ‘measure’ whether or not tertiary institutions were spending public monies well.

“The traditional professional culture of open intellectual enquiry and debate has been replaced with institutional stress on performativity, strategic planning, performance indicators, quality assurance measures and academic audits (Olssen and Peters in Shore, 2010:16).

The new ‘auditing’ and ‘accountability’ measures ranged from those focused on research outputs to evaluating student outcomes.

A performance-based research fund (PBRF) was introduced in the mid-1990s.

Dr Sandra Grey was the President of the New Zealand Tertiary Education Union based in Wellington. The above is an extract of articles that were published in ‘The Worlds of Education’ a magazine of Education International. Read related reports in this Section.

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