Decisions loom for tertiary research and education

On March 23 an official study into the quality of university research is due to be published. It may well not make reassuring reading.

Research is at the core of the government’s growth policy (though its spending is still below the OECD average, let alone compensating for the miserly private effort).

It is also a core element in Tertiary Education Minister Steve Maharey’s drive to differentiate (academic) universities from (practical) polytechnics.

Maharey has siphoned $5 million of university funding into a performance-based research fund. Another $20 million is due in the three years 2005-07. Previously university research had to compete for money with teaching and administration and the EFT funding system steered institutions towards attracting maximum numbers of students.

Now Maharey faces a crunch. Hints are that his quality study — an international peer review of researchers — rates universities here modestly at best by comparison with Britain, even in the case of some farm-oriented research, which is vital to our economy.

Should Maharey therefore concentrate his research funding on one university — Auckland’s track record makes it the obvious candidate — make it world-class and let the others wither? Should he spread his money around among “sites of excellence” in all universities? Or a mixture?

Probably the last, though that also probably means Auckland will keep and build on its national pre-eminence and outlier universities will find it increasingly difficult to attract the top students and postgraduate students — and eventually top teachers — that go with top research.

Research funding is also a tool for differentiating universities from polytechnics. A Tertiary Education Commission report defining their roles and those of teachers colleges, Maori waananga and private training establishments is to go to the cabinet soon and is due for release in late March or April.

This is the beginning of Maharey’s bigger challenge: to rationalise resources between universities and between the university and polytechnic systems.

EFT funding was essentially a payment for bums on seats in lecture theatres. That helped lift numbers dramatically in the 1990s. But, coupled with constraints on overall funding, it also provided an incentive to emphasise courses that could be taught at low cost or in large volumes.

And, because there were few constraints on what different institutions could teach, universities started offering sub-degree courses and polytechnics degree and postgraduate courses. That is, they began poaching off each other. Some polytechnics aspired to be universities in name and Auckland University of Technology succeeded.

Maharey has put a stop to that. Next comes the definition of roles. He is likely to urge universities to focus on academic teaching — degrees and postgraduate study — backed by world-class scholarship and research, and limit sub-degree courses to disadvantaged groups being prepared for degree study. He is likely to urge polytechnics to focus on vocational teaching and practical education and applied technological research that supports industry innovation, particularly in their regions.

There will be consultation — and controversy. But Maharey wants the definitions reflected in the institutions’ profiles — their definitions of what they say they do — for 2005.

Then the TEC can start prodding them to reduce duplication of courses, concentrate on courses they are strong in and, in universities’ case, focus more on value than on volume — even cap numbers, perhaps over time steer some whose aptitudes suggest they should not be on expensive university courses to less expensive polytechnic courses. But any reallocation of resources to reflect or stimulate that will not start to take effect until 2006.

That, however, will still not deal with a deeper issue: does the system maximise talent or does it preserve middle-class privilege?

A teenager in a decile 10 suburb (the richest) is more likely to go to university than one in a decile 9 suburb and so on all the way to decile 1. For Maharey’s system to be making the most of talent at university level, decile 1 kids would have to be dumber than decile 10 kids. Christine Fernyhough’s Gifted Kids programme has falsified that.

Maharey would claim he has programmes to dredge low-decile kids into the system. The waananga, for all their faults, seem to be first-stepping Maori dropouts, recovering wasted talent.

But Maharey has a long way to go if he is to get every milligram of talent at the research coalface. Which he needs if he is to get this tiny country up to world class.

* Lianne Dalziel has gone. Her real failure was political, not moral (though it was that) — all ministers leak (though not usually details of a case) and even “straight shooters” can contrive evasions. Helen Clark’s delay compounded the political failure. It was an unskilful call with the polls and weather in a wild mood and the economy cooling.