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Singer-songwriter Lorde and songwriter-producer Joel Little accept the Song of the Year award for “Royals” at the Grammy Awards in 2014. Little has a Diploma in Music from Auckland’s Music and Audio Institute of New Zealand, where late last year students learned the Bachelor of Audio Engineering and Production had been canned after it disappeared suddenly from the tertiary education provider’s website. Photo/Getty

Where’s the nanny state when you need it?

We need to give our universities and polytechnics what they require to function. Expecting them to operate at a profit is a misunderstanding of their job, writes Jenny Nicholls.

“Tena koe Jacinda, Please find enclosed a photo of the memorial plaque commemorating the opening of the Music and Audio Institute of New Zealand. We are moving out of our premises, our programmes decimated, staff driven out, and it seems a shame to just let all of the history disappear.

The Southern Institute of Technology took over the running of MAINZ in 2018... They have dismissed the important service to the music and music technology industries we provide – educating and helping young people into roles in performance, radio, television, film, electronic production, studio recording production, and live sound industries.

At MAINZ we celebrated [alumni] Joel Little and the success of Lorde, Jordan Stone with Neil Finn, Lance Powell mixing the latest Nick Cave album in the US... and the everyday successes that don’t make headlines, like Jana Whitta and Alex Aylett working for RNZ, Adam Peri leaving his meat-packing job in Bulls to work for Sky TV in Europe, Marcus Powell forming a trust to help at-risk youth find creative outlets. The list of success stories literally stretches worldwide over 20 years.

We also watched students reduced to living in cars or in City Mission shelters so they could come to MAINZ.

Polytechnics countrywide are cutting programmes and acting as if education needs to be more profitable. We are not asking for you to intervene, or wave some sort of prime ministerial wand – it is already done.”

– MAINZ staff members, 1996-2019

This letter to the Prime Minister may be seen as just one more squib in the battlefields of tertiary education in New Zealand. MAINZ is our leading contemporary music school, and it has been cut to pieces, staff say, while its owner – the state – snores. They believe its wounds are fatal; a proposed move to Te Wānanga o Aotearoa in Māngere of fragments of the school was still baffling teachers in late December. Staff numbers have been slashed by two thirds, compared to this time last year, and the lease has not been renewed on its famous Auckland CBD campus building, which is now up for sale.

The “shocking” closure of its keystone audio engineering and production degree is a catastrophe not only for its staff and students, but for New Zealand music. (SAE Creative Media, a private training institute in Auckland, has offered to teach out the course. According to the MAINZ website, its Christchurch campus is unaffected.) The damage has been done despite MAINZ being a textbook example of the kind of tertiary institution the government claims to want: prestigious and diverse. It is the most recent of many quiet failures in the tertiary sector, each silently burying the next within a ministry notorious for tight control of information, in an era where so many dedicated education reporters have been lost.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins blames “weak governance and management capabilities” for the mess, amidst critical skill shortages. Our tertiary institutions – increasingly run as silo-ed fiefdoms “acting as if education needs to be more profitable”, in the words of a MAINZ staffer – need to be treated as the social necessity they are. “The defining feature of a market is the freedom to walk away,” writes New York Times lead business writer Binyamin Appelbaum in his new book The Economists’ Hour. “Our problem is too many markets, and too much walking away.”

The group that manages MAINZ is shuttering the CBD faculty with little warning, citing a rent increase and dwindling admissions for courses it had, staff say, ceased to promote. In other words, it has been allowed to close with the alacrity of a collapsible table at a Saturday market. Its students, on the other hand, had made a much longer commitment – and have launched a petition calling for Hipkins to intervene.

Tertiary education is life-defining, as these students knew. It can affect how much you earn at 30, and whether you are destitute at 70. A tertiary institute owes them certainty, academic rigour, student support, affordability and a respected qualification. Deleting a course that a student has saved and planned for, or closing it while they are halfway through, may save the institution money but it is a calamity for the student.

The withering of our tertiary institutions is not limited to polytechnics. Days before the MAINZ staff letter was written, a story by Radio New Zealand described the shredding of Otago University’s marine science department. The only way to keep three marine scientists’ roles in the face of massive budget cuts was, apparently, for the head of the school to resign. If you imagine these academics spend their days in libraries polishing their pince nez, you would be mistaken. The department runs the New Zealand Marine Science Centre, a teaching research lab with a busy schedule including science outreach to all ages. Their most recent announcement? A seven-year project by the centre’s Dr Catherine Beltran is the first study to use molecular biomarkers (molecular fossils) to successfully reconstruct how past Antarctic ice sheets behaved when sea-surface temperatures in the Southern Ocean were warmer – kinda good to know, you might think, under the circumstances.

More than 6000 people signed a petition calling for the three marine biology jobs to be saved. As Professor Steve Dawson, the self-sacrificing HoD, told RNZ: “There’s never been a time that marine science has been more important than now; we’re currently facing two real existential crises – the extinction crisis, and climate change. All of our people work directly on issues of climate change or sustainability, so we’re really, really relevant to the crisis facing humanity right now. We’re retaining as much of our diversity of expertise as possible…”

Related articles: Tertiary education is invaluable – despite what some companies say | Māori and Pasifika scholars remain severely under-represented in NZ universities

The teachers and researchers losing their jobs are clearly not going because they are lazy or incompetent – a somewhat ironic situation given the management of our tertiary institutions has been described as “weak” by their own minister. This despite the fact that some of those managers are paid a lot more than the Prime Minister (who earned $471,049 in 2018). The University of Auckland’s outgoing vice-chancellor, Professor Stuart McCutcheon’s remuneration package in June 2019 was an eyewatering $760,000. The University of Otago’s vice-chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne earns $644,000; the Southern Institute of Technology’s chief executive Penelope Simmonds, $348,000. In 2017, the chief executive of Unitec, the country’s largest polytechnic, received a figure close to the PM’s: $430,000. Last year, it was announced that Unitec had lost the confidence of the Qualifications Authority. RNZ’s John Gerritsen reported in May that “the authority was “not yet confident” in Unitec’s educational performance or its capability in self assessment, and had dropped its quality category from two to three on a four-point scale. Its “external evaluation and review” report called Unitec’s educational performance marginal.

New Zealand needs a respected, professionally-run tertiary sector, for obvious reasons – such as providing expertise in fields too numerous to name. But there are lots of less obvious reasons, too. In countries with a poor education system, the social system is “sticky”, or ossified. There is more inequality and less social mobility. In the likes of Peru or Chad, if your parents work in a hubcap factory, it is hard for you to escape the same fate. Tertiary institutions such as MAINZ provide a leg-up for its students.

Many who understand the complexities of tertiary financing think the sector needs to be agile, to reflect a changing job market. Even so, certainty for students must always outweigh keeping up with the latest “ed-tech” – innovation for its own sake.

While the MAINZ debacle shows the ministry should have more control of the crucial institutions it pays for, it must also be more open to criticism. And tertiary institutions need to value irreplaceable frontline academic staff more, and lavishly paid managers who trip from failing polytech to failing polytech less.

And we, as a country, need to cough up. We need to give our universities and polytechnics what they require to function. Expecting them to operate at a profit is a misunderstanding of their job.

In 2016, government-funded tertiary education (excluding student loans) was 0.9% of our GDP. In Finland, the country whose tertiary education system has been ranked the world’s best by the World Economic Forum, it was 1.7%. Finnish tertiary students pay no tuition fees, unless they are taught in English and are from countries outside Europe. In comparison, a year at MAINZ cost students around $6500. Despite its high taxes, Finland has one of the highest benefit-cost ratios for obtaining a tertiary education in the world, and aims for half of all its 25- to 34-year-olds to hold a tertiary degree by 2030.

In Scandinavian countries such as Finland, tuition-free college is seen as “a bare basic required for any business-friendly nation to compete in the 21st century”, says the New York Times in a recent feature titled “Finland is a Capitalist Paradise”. The high tax rate required to pay for that has not, contrary to conservative theology, frightened away business. Finland is home to plenty of global giants, and is one of the world’s wealthiest societies. It scores highly on economic mobility across generations – better than the United States, and much better than New Zealand.

In 2014, the playwright Alan Bennett reflected on the unfairness of the private school system in Britain. “...the nanny state [is] a sneering appellation that gets short shrift with me. I have no time for the ideology masquerading as pragmatism that would strip the state of its benevolent functions and make them occasions for profit. And why roll back the state only to be rolled over by the corporate entities that have been allowed, nay encouraged, to take its place?”

If we don’t take control of a tertiary system that currently requires some students to sleep in cars to afford courses that close with no warning, we will end up with the worst of all possible worlds:  bad schools only the rich can afford.

“The government’s contributions to New Zealand universities have been shrinking in real terms for many years,” Quentin Atkinson told me. A professor of psychology at Auckland University, he works every day with researchers in other countries with a different tertiary model to our own. In New Zealand, he says, our most hallowed universities face a difficult future. “Round after round of staff cuts and restructuring are now really starting to bite. Rather than asking, ‘What can we become?’ even New Zealand’s top universities are asking, ‘How can we survive?’”

Jenny Nicholls tweets @jmnicholls

This article was first published in the February 2020 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more insightful journalism.