Leading sector voices are calling for systematic funding of universities in New Zealand, prior to the announcement of this year’s national budget. New Zealand’s finance minister, Grant Robertson, is to deliver the 2022 budget on May 19.
“We would like to see government invest into the university sector in a slightly more systemic way, in order to be able to develop the skills and knowledge that will actually underpin the areas that are so critical for our success in the future,” Chris Whelan, chief executive of Universities New Zealand, told The PIE.
Universities New Zealand would like to see the government look at the university sector as a provider of a “potential solution” to the major areas that are likely to be the government’s focus in the forthcoming 2022 budget, Whelan noted. Challenges include climate change, post-Covid economic recovery, as well as improving the overall lives of New Zealanders, he suggested.
Whelan told The PIE, that universities, over the past 15 years or so, had had to invest significant amount of resources in meeting the costs of regular upkeep and infrastructure requirements, and that not enough resources were able to be allocated to funding research. In his words, this is key to “unlocking” the potential of the sector to meet some of the country’s pressing challenges.
Overall funding of universities in New Zealand is much lower than other comparable OECD countries, such as the US, UK, Canada, and Australia, he highlighted.
While the OECD average research funding is 2.5% of GDP, in New Zealand it is 1.5%. He said that filling this gap would help “harness” the universities’ potential and enable them to provide a more future ready workforce.
“There is so much more that universities could do to unlock the potential of our young people”
Whelan also highlighted the fact that New Zealand was lagging behind some of the OECD countries in terms of the average number of post graduates — only 7% of the country’s adults have a postgraduate qualification, compared with the OECD average of 15%.
Universities should be viewed as “critical infrastructure”, for a world that is “increasingly being driven by knowledge workers and a knowledge economy”, he added. Universities are “the engines of the skills”, he said, referring to the fact that compared to the late nineties, now the percentage of jobs requiring a university degree in New Zealand has jumped by more than 20%.
He also contended that universities could help close the gap between the university education attainment levels of Maori students (33%) and students from a European background (54%) – thereby helping enhance the country’s skills and knowledge pools.
“We have a lot of bright and smart young people who have all the necessary abilities and interests to be able to step up and do more than what they are able to.
“There is so much more that universities could do to unlock the potential of our young people, to participate and succeed in the knowledge economy of the future,” he emphasised.
Chris Beard, ISANA New Zealand’s Executive Director said that the International Education representative body “agrees with the prime minister Jacinda Adern that productivity in New Zealand needs to be boosted with greater investments in skills and training”.
“There has been a significant loss of expertise in the sector while the borders have been closed”
After announcing borders will reopen on July 31, education minister Chris Hipkins revealed post-study work policy shifts, where non-degree level students would only be eligible for post-study work rights if they are filling specified shortage and skilled occupations.
Te Pūkenga, New Zealand Institute of Skills and Technology said the reopening is an “opportunity to better align” international students’ studies with identified skill shortage gaps to meet employer needs in all regions of the country.
“The association is hopeful that the budget provides an allocation for extra funding for international education which includes funding for research, professional development and training,” Beard told The PIE.
“As with Australia, there has been a significant loss of expertise in the sector while the borders have been closed.
“ISANA NZ’s view is that an investment in training and skills will enable the sector to reset itself with a well-rounded approach to international education that places the students and their aspirations at the heart of the enterprise,” Beard explained.
Highlighting the significance of this budget, particularly in terms of the post-Covid watershed, Whelan re-emphasised that budget 2022 was a chance for the government to better support universities and enhance their huge contribution to national wellbeing and towards providing the skills and solutions for the coming decades.