Business or Public Good? Aotearoa’s Universities at a Crossroads, by Professor Brigitte Bönisch-Brednich

Over the last decade, academics in New Zealand have become accustomed to hearing our students being referred to as clients, our alumni as stakeholders, council chambers as assets and our provosts as chief academic officers. Until recently, however, we had the belief that we did, still, work in a university. Last week, many of us were disabused of this notion when, in a regular university meeting, an administrator told us that a planned change did “not meet the requirements of our business.” 

Prior to the meeting many felt that as educators and researchers we had committed ourselves to a vocation not just a job. We saw ourselves as stewards of progressive democratic values. We understood our work as serving a higher educational purpose—that we play a key role in the upholding of the values of democracy by acting as the critic and conscience of society. We believe that we are here to help this country to become a flourishing Aotearoa New Zealand; to do our bit in creating a sustainable, democratic, free society that values diversity and its history, culture and science. 

Last week, we reached the crossroads: being referred to as a business, in no uncertain terms, seemed to clearly indicate that we are employed in an organisation whose purpose it is to make money. How did this happen? Even if we agree that the re-shaping of universities has been going on for a long time, and that we indeed need to have a close eye on how we manage our finances, we seem to have turned a new corner

One answer to this is the rise of the “global knowledge economy,” where universities have ceased acting as public goods and became businesses engaged in the sale of educational commodities and services –degrees—in contested markets. The university’s aim within this economy is to compete for paying students and to provide academic “services” to other clients. 

In this structure, the academic of the 21st century is part of a moving and movable workforce of knowledge workers that can be employed anywhere and everywhere and teach whatever students are willing to pay for. It encourages scholars to be fully mobile, to shed national ties and ethnic identities, and to operate in a worldwide English-speaking market. International rankings that all universities compete for are partly made up of how internationalised a university’s workforce and its student cohort is. 

The competition for both mobile students and mobile academics, in that order, has become a race that defines the ambitions of this country’s higher-education institutions. It shapes the way we work, the kinds of knowledge we produce, and the learning environments on our campuses. Money has to be made and so we now focus less on deep scholarship and mentoring students and more on rankings, marketing, and the sales of educational products.

The global knowledge economy is a shiny label but it hides the immense tensions that shape daily life on campus. Students struggle with huge debts. Most work, many full-time. They must juggle their academic work with economic precarity and uncertain futures. Anxiety rules their lives. This has become glaringly apparent as we come to terms with mental health epidemic sweeping the country’s residence halls. 

Scholars now navigate increasingly undemocratic institutional environments and feel a growing pressure to make money, a tightening of their freedoms, and a substantial reduction of resources. They teach more students with less time and less attention. 

Successive governments have incentivised rampant managerialism, which has inspired constant auditing and the never-ending demand to make money in student fees and research grants. All of this not only stifles morale, but decimates the generosity of spirit and the intellectual vision of our universities as critical public institutions whose highest goal is to serve a democratic Aotearoa New Zealand. 

From the outside, universities still appear to speak truth to power; most support a carbon-zero society and participate in the struggle for Māori and Indigenous rights. On the inside, they are run as businesses in which it is not quite clear whether our support for these just causes is done only to align with student recruitment goals. I sometimes find myself worrying whether we still care about these causes or just about marketing our care? 

And yes, we are now actively engaging in a pedagogy that embraces diversity and equity in teaching and research. But Māori and Pasifika academics remain a tiny minority at New Zealand universities; Māori and Pasifika students lack role models and endure an education system that is still not set up to truly support them. Students as citizens are increasingly finding it difficult to view the university as a place to belong and to experience democratic and future-oriented values. Instead, they find it a hostile environment bent on taking their money and delivering in exchange meagre returns in promises of job readiness and career-oriented pedagogy. 

This crossroads prompts us to ask even larger questions: What roles should universities play when it comes to serve Aotearoa New Zealand and its nation building project? How can we support and expand universities that serve the moral and political promise of this country? If the last decade of playing the game of the global knowledge economy has shown us anything, it is that this approach to higher education is detrimental to our country and its people. The economic structures that shape our higher-education institutions do not deepen our democracy or expand on a promise of a better future for all Kiwis. Instead, they exacerbate the tensions of inequality evident elsewhere in New Zealand, often extending the colonial legacies many of us are working so hard to transform. 

How might we best imagine universities for the 21st century? And how can we develop a vision that is free from viewing knowledge as a product, as a commodity and as having value that is increasingly attached to dollar signs? How can we convince our government that the support for and governance of our universities needs to be re-considered?

Our universities need to be re-imagined and equipped to enable all their members to participate in a project that ensures the future and well-being of our country and world. They need to be hosts for international students and staff who ‘walk the talk’ of an equitable and free world, and who embrace values that support curiosity, research, deep thinking and political action to save a planet facing climate crisis and disturbing inequalities. In all our universities, academics, professional staff and most managers are trying to live the scholarly values of tertiary education. However, current government revenue pressures and policy expectations make it close to impossible to hold on to them.

We are at a crossroads. But that can help to give us a sense of choosing a new direction. At this crucial time, we need to restore and build anew a community of learning that embraces values of democracy, kindness and sustainability for Aotearoa New Zealand and beyond.

Professor Brigitte Bönisch-Brednich

Professor Brigitte Bönisch-Brednich

Brigitte Bönisch-Brednich is a professor of cultural anthropology with research interests in the politics of higher education and academic mobility.