All Shook Up

Listener: 5 November, 1994

Keywords: Education;

First they came for the Jews. I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the communists. I did not speak out because I was not a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists. I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics. I was a Protestant and did not speak out. Then they came for me. By that time there was no one to speak out.

For two decades I have been haunted by Martin Niemoller’s quotation about life under the Nazis. Not that we have as tyrannical a society, but that is because people have spoken out. There is a tendency for every government – even the most benign – to descend to despotism, especially when urgent things are to be done. Those who speak out, even when they are wrong, moderate that tendency. Dissent is a part of the informal constitution.

Lawyer David Baragwanath has argued that our universities are similarly part of the constitution, intended to provide checks and balances against the excessive power of the other arms of state. This is reported in A Shakeup Anyway, which describes the recent university reforms. The book is written by academics Ruth Butterworth and Nicholas Tarling, who were involved on the university side. Although their account is partisan, they suggest that Baragwanath is ‘perhaps drawing too long a bow’, but I am inclined to agree with him. A liberal democracy needs agencies that are funded by the public and yet are independent of executive government.

The story of the university reforms is reminiscent of the Greek myth of Procrustes, the innkeeper who forced everyone to fit his beds by stretching the short and cropping the tall. With equal determination, the government in 1989 forced the universities into the bed it had fashioned for other state services, without any recognition of the peculiarities of the university system. Today, a university vice-chancellor has to be approved by cabinet, reversing a long history of distancing the control of universities from politicians.

There is no agency like the old University Grants Committee, which came between central government and the universities. Meanwhile, we have the extraordinary situation of a government-appointed qualifications authority trying to set university course standards

The oddity is continued in a recent review in New Zealand Books, by Geoffrey Palmer, who returned to a professorship after leaving Parliament. The article, which barely mentions the book under review, is a tirade against universities and academics. ‘One of the depressing features of New Zealand is the lack of sustained intellectual policy debate on virtually anything. In my bleaker moments, I feel the New Zealand academic community is incapable of making any useful contribution to New Zealand society.’

Palmer is better placed than most to make this judgment, but what surprises one is that there is no evidence in the Butterworth/Tarling account that Procrustes Palmer did anything about it when in power. Some would say the reforms over which he presided compounded the weaknesses he now regrets.

Butterworth and Tarling are right to argue that the Labour government was anti-intellectual, no doubt reflecting their voters. But they fail to note that all the ministers involved in the reforms – and 17 of the 20 cabinet ministers – were university graduates, some from the anthors’ own departments. It would seem the universities are failing to get their message across, even to their own.

The story is riddled with contradictions. The anti-intellectual reforms were based on a report by a university professor. Only two universities (Auckland and Canterbury) out of six committed themselves to the successful litigation against the government. Both Palmer and Phil Goff, the other minister closely involved, took up tertiary appointments after the 1990 election. Even the book is disappointing in that it does not put the university reforms in the wider context of all Labour’s reforms. Rogernomics was not one damned skirmish after another, but a directed campaign.

The picture one gets is of a university system torn between supporting the government and maintaining its independence. Niemoller could have added the German universities as an example of not speaking out, and being destroyed by the Nazis. It may be that because many academics failed to provide an independent critique of the reforms (which is not, of course, the same thing as uncritical condemnation), they contributed to the pressures on higher education today.

Perhaps we should go back to the 1925 {Reichel-Tate) Royal Commission on universities, which said that New Zealand universities ‘offer unrivalled facilities for gaining university degrees, but are less successful in providing university education.’