Cuts harming many for little gain

Chris Hipkins speaks to Otago students. PHOTOS: PETER MCINTOSH
Chris Hipkins speaks to Otago students. PHOTOS: PETER MCINTOSH
Otago University’s funding crisis is a crisis for Dunedin, Quintin Jane writes.

There is anger in the air at the University of Otago.

With jobs, lives and futures on the line, people are (rightfully) scared. We have seen students and staff protesting multiple times this year already, concerned about their jobs and futures. Universities are crucial elements of a prosperous and well-educated Aotearoa, yet the way governments continue to approach their funding treats them as a nice-to-have. We all need to be demanding better for our academic institutions in order to safeguard the future of Dunedin and the educations of generations of students to come.

In response to questioning about why the government will not increase support for the University of Otago, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins told students at an OUSA-hosted forum this month the government needs to respect the operational autonomy of universities in order to safeguard academic freedom.

But when universities are left to make cuts and fund only disciplines that attract large numbers of students, any operational autonomy is lost to market forces. A reliance on external funding from wealthy donors and businesses for research and funding programmes that would otherwise be unprofitable means that they dictate academic direction of universities. Government funding is essential to the longevity of our universities to both preserve academic excellence and safeguard institutions from only functioning as job placement schemes.

The touting of the largest increase to tertiary education funding in 20 years by the prime minister shouldn’t be a badge of honour for the government. Instead, this should serve as a wake-up call for the government and governments past, highlighting the neglect that tertiary funding has received in the recent future. In those 20 years, universities have repeatedly undergone mass redundancies, restructures, and consolidations to overcome gaps between expenses and income. Student loans are ever-increasing as the student component of course fees goes up as a result, condemning young people to a lifetime of debt.

With several hundred jobs on the line, the government needs to remember how central the University of Otago is to Dunedin; to fail the university is to fail the city.

The university’s recently released economic impact report showed the university contributed more than $1 billion to the Dunedin economy. These cuts will directly affect hundreds of people and families, running the risk of a mass exodus of former staff away from Dunedin as they look to continue their careers elsewhere.

Protesters greet Chris Hipkins as he arrives for a forum with Otago students.
Protesters greet Chris Hipkins as he arrives for a forum with Otago students.
Across New Zealand thousands of tertiary jobs are in peril, and there are 400,000 students across the country watching their institutions struggle and their favourite lecturers worry about their futures. The government has a responsibility to step up and fund our institutions.

The government needs to radically look again at the way we fund the tertiary sector to safeguard our institutions for students now and in the future. Both the student loan scheme and the direct government funding to universities are clearly not fit-for-purpose and need urgent review. This week OUSA and VUWSA penned an open letter to the government and tertiary education commission calling for them to step up, fund the tertiary sector and safeguard our futures.

The current funding model is not enough to sustain university budgets. Instead, to raise funds, universities are forced to try to increase the number of students at universities, grow class sizes, and rely on the exploitation of international students for whom fees are unregulated. Instead, universities need to be funded as a public service, valued for the intrinsic good they provide to our communities. We need a funding model that actually values universities and students and recognises their role in prosperity and growth.

We need to stop indebting students for their education so that choosing to go to, or stay at, university isn’t a financial decision, but rather one that enables students to think deeply about their futures and where they want to go in life.

Free tertiary education would enable a wider cohort of students to reap the broader social benefits of university, as well as the academic value that enriches new Zealand.

And to students, we are a big part of the voting block. We can determine who the next government is, if we make our voices heard.

This election, tell your candidates they need to fund tertiary education. Tell the parties that they wont get your vote if they don’t protect your future.

This election we need to demand that all political parties do better for the universities across new Zealand, which provided the majority of politicians and political candidates their education.

For the future of Dunedin and Aotearoa, we need to protect our tertiary institutions.

— Quintin Jane is president of the Otago University Students Association.