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CAUT Bulletin Archives

February 2001

New Zealand Study Shows Folly of Market-Driven Universities

Michiel Horn

Troubled Times: Academic Freedom in New Zealand

Rob Crozier, ed. Palmerston, New Zealand: Dunmore Press, 2000; 302 pp; paper $16 US.
With his customary shrewd insight and clarity, Donald Savage reports on the state of academic freedom in New Zealand and makes recommendations for change.

Among the thoughts and feelings that seized me in reading this book, relief was dominant. Conditions may seem tough in Ontario's universities and they will probably get tougher. But they have some distance to go before they can match the troubles experienced by New Zealand's universities during the last dozen years.

Edited by Rob Crozier, executive director of the Association of University Staff of New Zealand (AUSNZ), this volume is largely an AUSNZ-commissioned report on the state of academic freedom in New Zealand, complete with recommendations for change, prepared by Donald C. Savage, recently retired after a quarter century as executive secretary of CAUT. Written with his customary shrewd insight and clarity, the report will be most useful to its intended New Zealand audience. However, it has lessons for academics wherever neo-liberalism is influencing public policy.

The basic neo-liberal impulse is "to leave it to the free market." Consistent neo-liberals see tertiary education institutions (as universities are called in New Zealand) as offering products (courses, programs, and degrees) whose primary beneficiaries are the institutions' consumers (students of all ages), who should, in principle at least, pay a fair market price (tuition).

What, in this context, does academic freedom mean? "Not much," is the answer Savage offers. He doesn't sound surprised, and rightly so. After all, one of the fathers of neo-liberalism (in North America usually called neo-conservatism) is William F. Buckley Jr, who stated in his book God and Man at Yale (1951): "Every citizen in a free economy, no matter what wares he plies, must defer to the sovereignty to the consumer." (p.185) The subtitle of Buckley's polemic is The Superstitions of 'Academic Freedom'.

The freedom the market gives to people is the freedom to do what the market wants done, not what the scholar and scientist thinks should be done. There is some room in this doctrine for British-style academic free speech, but neo-liberals give due weight to the right of employers to proscribe speech that, in their view, harms the interests, i.e., the competitive position, of the company or university.

The key problem — one Savage squarely addresses — is that market-driven universities undermine academic freedom in teaching and research, central to the idea of academic freedom that became dominant about a century ago. The most pernicious aspect of this is to separate the funding of teaching and research (after all, why should consumers pay for the latter?), and to force researchers to rustle up private money. This leads to the commercialization of research that offers profit potential and the marginalization of research that does not. Savage rightly devotes a good deal of his report to the issues raised by these developments.

Another problem is that institutions in New Zealand (as in England and Australia) have had their autonomy weakened even though neo-liberalism would indicate otherwise. The reason, Savage shows, is that governments cast themselves as a kind of super-consumer in a market in which the actual consumers (or their parents) lack the money to buy the universities' products, so that a substantial government subsidy is necessary. Politicians and bureaucrats may then try to predict the market and force the institutions to respond to those predictions.

They also seek to force the universities to demonstrate, often elaborately, that they are not wasting public resources. That the time and money spent in meeting requests for information might be better spent in teaching and research is evidently thought to be irrelevant, even subversive.

Again, no surprise here. Savage does not cite Parkinson's Law, "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion," but he might well have done so. In a bureaucracy, as C. Northcote Parkinson showed, preparing reports, sending them around, commenting on them, revising them, using them as a basis for planning (thus spawning new reports) are all self-evidently worthwhile activities. Bureaucrats push paper around, that is their main job; and they are irritated when academics point out that they should have more important things to do.

For a dozen years, under two different governments (Labour and National), bureaucrats influenced by neo-liberal notions but also committed to the monitoring of government-funded institutions had a field day in New Zealand. Alas, neo-liberalism's payoff has been unimpressive for most New Zealanders and to some extent Savage's report has been overtaken by events. Neo-liberalism seems to be in retreat, at least in New Zealand. But the report contains a large number of recommendations, on subjects such as patenting, inclusiveness, speech codes and the like, that are worth taking seriously, and not just "down under."

The volume contains three essays on academic freedom by New Zealanders. One of them, by a Maori feminist scholar, Kathie Irwin, is though-provoking, disturbing, and quite fascinating, because it will force most readers to look at academic freedom in an unaccustomed way.

The book has four appendices, among them CAUT's 1977 model clause on academic freedom. Unfortunately there is no index. A glossary of acronyms would also have been useful. New Zealand readers may not need one, but others will have to keep on looking back through the book.

Michiel Horn is professor of history at Glendon College, York University. His most recent book Academic Freedom in Canada: A History was published in 1999 by University of Toronto Press.