Tuesday, May 21

Some advice from our tertiary history for the University Advisory Group

The recent announcement of the University Advisory Group, chaired by Sir Peter Gluckman, makes very clear where the Government’s focus and priorities lie. The remit of the Advisory Group is that Group members will consider challenges and opportunities for improvement in the university sector including:

  • how it serves New Zealand and the size of the system
  • promoting appropriate levels of coordination between institutions
  • ensuring quality in research, teaching, and knowledge transfer
  • funding mechanisms and the role of the Performance Based Research Fund
  • ways to best achieve equity for all learners; and
  • the role of international education.

But if we consider the membership of the advisory group, certain sectors of tertiary education and society seem to be missing. I want to raise a serious question as to how the university system be understood or have recommendations made concerning it when there are no representatives from the humanities and social sciences, nor from the creative arts, and none also from education?

I am not disputing that the tertiary sector is in trouble. It should be clear to everyone that it has been, for decades. In fact, I would suggest that the issues go back over a century and have to do with how we live as a society and what we value. This is why a wider pool of knowledge and representation on the advisory group is required – as well as a wider remit.

The advisory group should be (made) aware that they exist on the back of a long-standing series of attempts to analyse and reform what is done in the New Zealand tertiary system. For example, here are three different examples that I would suggest still apply to today’s tertiary sector – and to New Zealand society.

In 1911 the New Zealand University Reform Association was established to call for a royal commission. It noted “it is now generally recognized that the main function of a university is to make its students think for themselves” while observing the central problem was the singular focus on examination linked to a textbook: “Our university encourages students to think that the passing of examinations is the highest form of intellectual activity. The highest ideals of a university are the training of character, and the extension of knowledge; until our university stands for these ideals it will not have a national influence.”

The Reichel-Tate report in 1925 set out a list of issues for the University of New Zealand, comprising job-working students only focused on examinations, very little time to spend on research, low-paid staff with too large classes, and the funding and resourcing of libraries. It commented, “the general impression left on our minds is that the New Zealand University offers unrivaled facilities for gaining university degrees, but that it is less successful in providing university education.”

A.E. Campbell, for the New Zealand Council for Educational Research in 1943 observed that “research in socio-economic, psychological and cultural fields has been backward”, the result being the “lack of self-awareness” of the New Zealander that results in being “something of a stranger in his own land”. This is a “dangerous condition in a society in which men are more and more placed in positions in which their actions profoundly affect the daily lives of their fellow-countrymen.”

Any attempt to reconsider the tertiary system in New Zealand without undertaking a concerted historical awareness and analysis will only (yet again) result in futile surface-level rearrangement. For the issues the tertiary sector faces and encounters are longstanding ones to do with the attitudes and expectations of wider New Zealand society.

If the focus is to be on the role of science in tertiary education, society, and the economy I would also suggest the Advisory Group could learn a great deal by reading and considering the pamphlet Research and the University, published in July 1945. This was a pan-New Zealand affair signed by 3 academics at Canterbury University College: Karl Popper, Hugh Parton, and Robin Allan; and by John Eccles at Otago and Henry Forder in Auckland. Significantly, they came from geology, physiology, mathematics, and chemistry, with Popper in philosophy the only outlier. Research and the University stressed the integration of teaching and research in the university and argued that teaching uninformed by research means the university cannot fulfill its obligation to the community.

However, it also supported the non-vocational focus of research and teaching in the university, which was “conceived as hovering in the borders of the unknown, conducted, even in the realm of the already ascertained, in the pursuit of doubt and enquiry.” The pamphlet stated that if a university undertakes teaching that is “not imbued with the spirit of enquiry as it is embodied in the tradition of research” then it fails its obligation to the community.

They argued for academic freedom in research but also for research centres and a research tradition which required adequate funding, sufficient staffing levels, space, apparatus, and clerical assistance, greatly increased library facilities, especially in periodicals, increased conference, and congress attendance, both in New Zealand and abroad, supported by regular sabbatical leave, support for publication via either a university press or monetary assistance, and the recognition of research by status and promotion.

Their argument was summarized as: “What we need is the establishment and encouragement of the research tradition”; and because New Zealand was a “comparatively new country”, this research tradition must be imported. 

It also argued, using the example of Rutherford, that New Zealand could not afford to lose good researchers, compared to the prevailing attitude that New Zealand couldn’t afford to keep them. Has anything really changed in almost 80 years?

The central issue they identified in 1945 was (yet again) the wider societal and student expectation “that it is the task of the university to hand to students a definite body of examinable knowledge”; this attitude they argued “must be discarded”, especially as a post-war “great influx of students… endangers University standards”. In 2024 I’d suggest that any ‘great influx’ of students does so unless there is significant resourcing that is not tied to student pass rates.

If read carefully, it’s clear the focus of this short pamphlet from 1945 was the needs of science in research and teaching. It was a timely salvo, given the widespread discussion, both within and outside the university, regarding science, both pure and applied as driving post-war reconstruction and industry. In further discussion, one of the reformers, scientist Hugh Parton, stated that there should be no division in funding and support between pure academic research and applied research, quoting from Truscott’s Redbrick University that the arts faculty is the most practical of all “because it studies the big questions and studies them in a non-specialized, non-technical way”.  I’d suggest that if the arts faculty is no longer regarded as such – whether inside or outside the university – then the arts need to consider why and take steps to address this. But this is also why arts representation needs to be on the advisory group: so it can be part of discussions  – and not just be discussed.

Almost 80 years on from Research and the University, little really seems to have changed and we are still expecting science to drive economic reconstruction and society – this time, post-covid.  But such a focus also points to a long-standing issue both within the tertiary sector, but more importantly within New Zealand society, regarding the purpose, focus, and value of tertiary education.

Of course, this is a question the wider world was wrestling with and continues to do so. For example, I am interested  in just how current and relevant appear to be the issues identified by  Arnold Nash in The University and the Modern World  in 1943: That is, the crisis in the university is a symptom of a wider crisis in liberal capitalist democracy, whereby in the face of “the confusion and  chaos of the liberal world view”,  the “liberal democratic university, by rejecting any real attempt to discover and then teach a unified conception of life refuses to be a university.”

Nash is arguing that what is needed is “a new frame of reference in terms of which scientific knowledge can be ordered and understood” and that “knowledge can only be  adequately understood in terms of its social origins.”

The problem, then as now, is that liberal bourgeois capitalism and the liberal democratic university was living off an ever-depleting moral capital, yet unsure what to replace that moral capital with that would enable a unified conception of life that was neither nihilistic nor reduced to market forces. In short, the issue is that scientific thinking cannot be the basis of meaning and history, whether in the natural and physical sciences or in the growth of the social sciences – or even in the turn of the humanities to justify themselves via forms of ‘the scientific method’. This, Nash terms the idol of science in the modern world. He traces this to the challenge to scholasticism undertaken by the Protestant reformation and how this in turn was challenged by the Enlightenment.

It is not that Nash wishes to undo the advances in human knowledge made possible by these changes, rather that the social turn to science created a philosophical gap in the meaning of life and of history that science has been unable to fill. In his discussion of the inter-relatedness of the rise of capitalism and that of the scientific movement, the point is made that neither science nor capitalism can provide that which is missing, and the result is chaos and nihilism – or the turn to totalitarianism.

My concern in undertaking such a historical overview is to remind the advisory group that any discussion that does not seek to address the meaning of human existence and knowledge in totality cannot successfully address what a university is meant to do – and why.

So, what should the advisory group do? One option would be to seek to increase their membership, to reflect more fully the tertiary sector. But given that is unlikely, I would urge them to engage more fully with what has already been thought and written on these issues. 

For instance, one possibility arises via a recent archival discovery from Canterbury university, a manuscript by Prof. R.S. Allan (of Research and the University) dating from around 1956-1957, that sets out an wide-ranging and detailed introduction to the university, its purpose, its functions and its courses – for all within the university whether students or academic staff; and for the wider public. Allan, influenced very strongly by Popper, argues for the need, in the modern world, for both staff and students to possess the best of the humanist tradition coupled with an understanding of the scientific method.

Throughout, as geologist, scientist, and noted University reformer Allan demonstrates his knowledge of and engagement with the humanist tradition while noting humanities scholarship is not cumulative like that of science, so it never starts “from the crest for the wave” which means “it is less easy than in the sciences”. While there is a wealth of material and insight, claim and assertion in his manuscript, there are two main statements made by Allan I want to finish with.

He argues that: “First, the university should be a living society with fellowship at three levels, between teacher and teacher, between student and teacher, and between student and student. Second, it should  be an organisation for the dissemination of learning; and, third, and most important, it should be a centre of research and scholarship.” But there is also, he argues, a social role and function: “…the universities have to meet the need for educating great numbers of students in social responsibility and culture; they must be, more fully than ever before, schools of citizenship, as well as academies of learning.”

I would hope and trust that the absence of the humanities and other areas from the University Advisory Group will not result in an oversight as to what the humanities and these other areas can and do contribute to the life, purpose, and meaning of either the university or of the nation.

But I would also suggest that rather than trying to yet again reimagine tertiary education in this country, the advisory group draw heavily on what has already been thought, discussed, argued, and written about the tertiary system – here and abroad.  Unless it does so –  and its remit is significantly broadened – we will find it becomes just another footnote in the failure of tertiary reform in this country.  For tertiary reform disconnected from the reform of wider societal issues and attitudes is doomed to failure and serves no one any good.

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