30 August 2006

Tertiary Education Strategy

The government has recently released a Discussion Document to begin consultation towards a second Tertiary Education Strategy (TES). Some comments on this are warranted, and I will give the Discussion Document a tick and a cross. First, though, it is worth noting that the existing TES had a number of notable failings. Perhaps most obvious of these was the language and rhetoric used. It did not reflect the values and idiom of educationalists, it was unduly instrumental and economistic in its approach, and it tended to assert, in a rather bossy tone, that tertiary education institutions ‘will’ do this or that. (Though I have to say that it was surprising just how cravenly obedient university managers were to all of this!)
The present Discussion Document is a little more promising in that it appears to be more inclusive of a range of educational values and outcomes. Nevertheless, it is still bent on making the sector ‘align itself’ with goals set by government.
It is promising this time round, however, to see the document include some (albeit slight) recognition of academic freedom and the role of ‘critic and conscience of society’ (a role that is a duty of universities under the Education Act). The Discussion Document is still inadequate in this regard (and one hopes that the new TES will make up for this). So, for example, it talks of ‘navigating academic freedom’ as if that were some kind of obstacle, rather than a fundamental quality of higher education and research, insisted upon by the Education Act, and in accordance with which the Minister is required always to act.
It is, in principle, likely that the present government’s strategic direction and funding structures for universities actually breach its requirements to preserve and enhance academic freedom. Governments breach that statutory requirement when they use incentives or planning to change or direct the priorities of universities. The freedom of scholarship and inquiry and the freedom to determine curriculum and to assess students as they believe best meets the requirements of the advancement of learning are not adequately recognized when governments use funding as a bribe to take on governmental values and goals (regardless of how laudable the government’s intentions may be). The Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF), for instance, is a direct interference in academic freedom.
Nevertheless, the staff of universities serve a public good when they are prepared to stand outside of government’s social and economic goals and to critically appraise them – or even to simply ignore them and to direct their attention elsewhere. This is a public good because an advanced and open democratic society requires the maintenance of well-informed debate that can question popular beliefs or political opinions and promote new ideas.

28 August 2006

Post-Match Commentary

Thanks to all of you who attended the 721 contact course and made it an enjoyable weekend. It is a shame that the university supports no weekend food etc facilites for these courses, but we survived all the same. I should confirm that the deadline for the second essay is now 18 September.
Also, there's a good article on the Bill of Rights Act in the Herald today, and thanks to those who have commented on these constitutional matters - and on other posts too.
Ciao from Grant

21 August 2006

Constitutional Reform

In a recent Listener article Tim Watkin has done a good, thoughtful job of explaining the need for constitutional reform. It’s a shame that so many other New Zealanders find the subject too boring to think about, or else take the complacent ‘if ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach. Worse still, MPs are clearly too scared to tackle the problem, and produced a very lame reporton the matter. I think we need more debate about this.
I disagree with Watkin in his assumption that the Treaty is an essential part of any future constitution. The Treaty is a poorly drafted and ambiguous document, and some of its wording is now simply irrelevant (‘British subjects’? The Crown’s ‘exclusive right of Preemtion’ in land transactions?). It has become a source of division, rather than unity; and its two versions appear to mean quite different things.
Certainly, it does have an historical constitutional role, in that it signifies the formation of the British colonial government here, and it purported (at very least) to protect Maori property rights. So, a constitution may note the historical place of the Treaty. But surely we could come up with wording that would better reflect the future status of sovereignty and indigenous peoples’ rights than what the Treaty offers us. We need to think creatively about this, and not just assume that the Treaty has an unquestionable place as some kind of constitutional bedrock.
Naturally, the status of the Treaty will become one of the biggest debating points in any future constitutional reform process. But, the place of the British monarch as head of state, and the possible powers of any new head of state, are equally significant and emotive issues for us. I think it’s time we ordinary New Zealanders took the lead over politicians and began this debate.

03 August 2006

What are the limits of effective public policy?

Concerns about crime and violence have led to various proposals about controlling such problems. These are sometimes fuelled by the capabilities provided to us by scientific research and electronic technologies. So, for example, Rotorua City wishes to monitor its CBD on closed-circuit TV to spot known criminals who have been banned from the streets and to have them removed. The Children’s Commissioner wants a national database to track every child from birth to 18 (why stop at 18?). A researcher, Kaye McLaren, proposes a system that identifies – at birth – those likely to become serious criminals so that their families could get priority aid from social services. This is intended to reduce the numbers of offenders in prisons. (As you probably know, New Zealand’s prison incarceration rate is already one of the highest in the world, and growing). McLaren says: ‘The path to prison starts at conception’. But if you are poor and Maori, you are more likely to be a target for the system she proposes. I’m just wondering what the limits of effective law and public policy actually are. What do you think?