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NZ universities facing multiple challenges

In brief
  • Drops in enrollment and rising costs are leaving most NZ universities with budget shortfalls. Some in the tens of millions of dollars. 
  • The problem is exacerbated by a shrinking number of students able to qualify for university in the first place. 
  • Who decides how the universities market themselves overseas? 

Most of NZ universities are failing financially

The state of higher education has mostly been “ignored” by the parties during the election campaign. However, going forward, the Government is going to have to contend with a university system in flux and facing multiple challenges. 

Despite a 2023 one-off funding boost, five of the country’s eight universities are in financial difficulty. This year, several, like Massey University and the University of Otago, are both on track to lose tens of millions of dollars and are set to axe hundreds of jobs. Only Auckland and Lincoln universities are expecting to be in the black. 

NZ Universities: Challenges and Financial Struggles
Students are not making the grade when it comes to passing their university entrance exams.

COVID policies’ long shadow

School budgets continue to be harmed by border closures during COVID that drove down foreign student enrolment, which has not yet recovered

Domestic enrollment has also been harmed, in part, by increasing numbers of high school leavers (a trend made worse by COVID lockdowns). For the majority of students that do stay, less than half qualified for university entrance through NCEA in a trend that has only worsened since 2017. 

The effects of the Government’s response to COVID has also been blamed for a drop in university students progressing from second to third year as the quality of teaching degraded with the move to online. 

The National party has released a policy focussed on Education New Zealand’s role in making NZ more attractive to international students by promising to expand visa and work options. 

Who’s running the farm?

The academic landscape is also changing, but is it for the better? 

Reports say Ministry of Education figures show agriculture students made up just over 1% of all undergraduate enrolments, down almost 40% since 2013. Meanwhile, the Creative Arts accounted for nearly 10%. 

Overall, the lagging interest in agricultural studies is having consequences. For example, Massey University is looking to reduce staff by 60% in areas of plant science, natural sciences and food technology. Speaking to RNZ, agriculture professor Dr John Hickford, is quoted as saying:

“(T)he fundamental problem is one that we’ve known about for a long time, which is we let 17-year-olds in New Zealand decide the strategic direction of our university sector because of our funding following students.”

Available data suggests the average age of farmers in New Zealand is increasing. They’re currently in their 50s and 60s. Who’s going to replace them? 

“Decolonising” education or “woke indoctrination”?

There are also calls for “decolonising” the university curriculum. Some academics interpret this to mean actively embracing mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) and seek to elevate its status so it has parity with traditional western science. 

Academic Elizabeth Rata argues mātauranga Māori is not compatible with science and says that “this so-called decolonisation, indigenisation of the curriculum”, is a “disaster”. 

Critics call it “indoctrination” and say it discourages the return of overseas students because they view NZ universities as “ethnic universities where there is compulsion around engagement with Te Ao Māori [Māori worldview] and mātauranga Māori”.

“Decolonisation” also raises issues around what constitutes hateful and offensive speech prompting the ACT party, in particular, to campaign on protecting freedom of expression at universities. 

Is there any government policy about how the universities are made to appeal to international students? Who controls those settings?

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