The Uni Split

Letter to an expatriate: 2031
Listener: 4 November, 2006
Keywords: Education;

Dear Gerry,
You’ve asked me what’s happened to New Zealand universities since we graduated all those years ago in 2006. Actually, the critical issue was finally identified that year. Even today it is remembered in the line “You can’t have the job of a world-class Shakespeare scholar determined by students taking commerce instead of English”.

Our universities were trying to do two quite different things: provide mass post-secondary education on the one hand and advanced education and research on the other. The division of the tertiary sector (today advanced institutions are grouped into a “quaternary” sector) was also happening overseas, but New Zealand saw the issue more clearly and dealt with it more logically. When fickle student demand drives mass education, each institution’s teaching input has to be flexible. But advanced-level education and research need more stability. The two activities require fundamentally different production processes and therefore different kinds of providers with different cultures.

Consequently the university system split into two components: Colleges for Tertiary Education (CTEs), which mainly teach undergraduates, and Institutes of Advanced Studies (IASs), which focus on graduate teaching and research. Nowadays they are largely separate organisations, although many CTEs have a few centres of research excellence, with staff upgrading their research in order to move on to IAS jobs.

Most IASs have an undergraduate college programme for very able students – even world-class academics like to engage with young minds – but it’s a small part of their total activity. That doesn’t mean you have no future in advanced studies if you go to a CTE. IASs actively recruit their graduate students from CTEs, thus setting a quality control on the demand-driven courses. Recall how in our time departments would preserve jobs by increasing their pass rates and reducing content to attract students. Nowadays the IAS recruitment of students with a CTE degree tells the world whether the CTEs’ undergraduate courses are of any value.

Other changes have reinforced these gains. There are only five IASs, so the university structure we knew in 2006 has been consolidated, with some campuses becoming CTEs. (And very good ones, some of them, too. I’d have no hesitation in sending my child to one for a sound undergraduate education.) Remember Archie? Superb teacher, but in that Performance Based Research Fund exercise with a lowest grade of “R” they gave him an “S”. So he went to a CTE. But the proportion of his students that went on to IASs is legendary. He’s just voluntarily retired at 72. At his last lecture the students gave him a standing ovation. Polytechs became CTEs, too.

Today you can go to a local polytech in, say, Nelson, do a Bachelor’s degree and then on to the top IAS in your subject (or indeed in other subjects, because many IAS programmes look for good-quality students irrespective of their undergraduate courses). Mind you, polytechs continue to teach a lot of sub-undergraduate “craft” courses. The economy desperately needs these skills, too. Polytechs were finally sorted out when their funding was changed so that a lump sum covers their core costs, including their servicing of their local communities, and they no longer need to be driven by “bums-on-seats” paymentto cover overheads.

The merger of Crown Research Institutes into the IASs was tortuous, but it worked. Their origin in the DSIR in the 1920s was a consequence of the universities of the day being primarily teaching institutions. Today most IASs (including their ex-CRI arms) have spun off a number of very profitable commercial activities.
You are asking me, Gerry, because you and Julia, loyal members of the KEA [Kiwi Expatriate Association] diaspora, are thinking of sending your kids to a New Zealand university. The short answer is they can go to a CTE or an undergraduate programme in an IAS and get as good an education as anywhere in the world (which was not quite true in our day). Today, two or three of our IASs are among the top 100 universities in the world (depending on the measure) and the others are not there only because they’re too small.

But golly, it was hard getting there.