It is the turn of universities to have their governance
councils cut back.
Polytechnics went through the process three years ago, and
Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce claims much of a
turnaround in performance can be attributed to better
governance. Axed from polytechs were student and community
representatives, with numbers reduced from about 18 to eight.
What is more, the Government, through the minister, appoints
four of the eight, with the other four selected by the
ministerial appointees. The Government also appoints the
chairman, and council members may sit on several councils.
Clearly, there is little room for local autonomy.
Universities are governed in varying ways. Otago has 17
council members (including vice-chancellor), three short of
the maximum. Mr Joyce is looking at 12, and it would appear
he will allow more flexibility than for polytechnics. At
present, four at Otago are government appointees, three from
academic staff, one from general staff, one appointed by the
council after consulting employer organisations and one after
consulting ''worker'' organisations.
The Dunedin City Council appoints a representative and
students two. Perhaps anticipating the changes, the
university has proposed removing the three Court of
Convocation members elected by graduates, with these replaced
by council appointees. This in itself says something about
the Otago council.
First, this matter was initially discussed with the media and
public excluded, continuing the university's long and
dishonourable traditions of keeping more than necessary
behind closed doors and conducting many - if not most -
important discussions in ''pre-meetings''. This eliminates a
link and contact with university alumni, even though few
In any event, given Mr Joyce's views, the Court of
Convocation's days could be numbered, along with much of the
staff and students' representation.
Universities have been moving towards more ''managerial''
models rather than traditional collegial emphasis, and
streamlined governance would be another major step in that
Mr Joyce expects new councils, once he confirms his
proposals, to be more entrepreneurial and flexible. Just like
the disastrous Solid Energy board perhaps? Given the speed at
which the university responds to issues, however, he might
have a point. The university can appear a cumbersome beast
with various layers of management and a slow and plodding way
of reaching decisions.
Mr Joyce also sees the need for sharp business heads on
councils. Most universities, though, have recognised this,
and Otago has included leading businessmen for many years.
The likes of Jim Valentine, Trevor Scott, Lindsay Brown and
Stuart McLauchlan, for example, have served or do so now in
senior governance roles.
The danger with Mr Joyce's plans is the loss of independence
Although the Government pays the bulk of university funding,
and therefore has a right to expect accountability, there has
to be a balance between control and freedom. Universities in
our Western democracies do need independence; they do need to
be the ''critic and conscience of society''. An undue
governmental focus on shorter-term horizons and on what is
best for economic development can stifle learning and fresh
and important research and long-term progress.
We live in an age when small boards are supposedly more
effective. With strong leadership this need not be so, and
larger boards need not be unwieldy. Community links can be
maintained and, at the same time, boards which hear only from
the most senior management miss out on the diversity and
differing views that can come from a student or a staff
We live, too, in an age when government control - for example
over health boards and major resource consents - is expanding
all the time.
There are inherent dangers in this, as Wellington controls
more and more of our institutions and more and more of our
lives. At least Mr Joyce's proposals are not as far-reaching
as for polytechnics. With some trimming here and there, 12 is
a reasonable number. As long as some diversity and
significant independence is maintained, the Council of the
University of Otago might, as vice-chancellor Harlene Hayne
has said, be able to live with proposed changes.