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New advisory groups for universities and science sector – Expert Reaction

The government has announced two new advisory groups, one for the science sector and the other for universities.

It comes after the previous government’s plans to reform the science system were scrapped, and the National Science Challenges start to wind down.

The Performance-Based Research Fund is being put on hold, and will reviewed by the University Advisory Group.

The SMC asked experts to comment. 

Professor Richard Easther, Department of Physics, University of Auckland, and President of the New Zealand Institute of Physics, comments: 

“It is positive to see a clear problem statement for the Science System Advisory Group, and a relatively short timeframe, given that we have been treading water for several years. However, it is disappointing that the review focusses only on outcomes and does not see a strong science system as a goal on its own — it asks only about the harvest, and not about the long-term health of the orchard.

“Moreover, New Zealand has a poor record in science planning — the soon to expire National Science Challenges struggled to succeed, and we have made a number of weak investment decisions over the years.  Consequently, this group has a challenging task ahead of it and it will need to be able to work differently from previous efforts if it is to produce a good outcome for the country.”

No conflict of interest declared

Dr Sereana Naepi, Principal Investigator, Te Punaha Matatini; and Rutherford Discovery Fellow, comments:

“The research and university system is in need of significant overhaul as we saw by the level of engagement from the sector in both Te Ara Paerangi and the PBRF reforms. Both of these processes collected significant levels of feedback from the sector that I am hopeful will be considered by the two groups. I am glad to see that there will be a connection, this is necessary to ensure that any changes that are implemented are aligned and support each other. The reforms will not be an easy task in the current fiscal environment and I am concerned about what will be considered expendable based on what we have seen in overseas reforms of university spaces and also of other troubling public rhetoric.”

No conflict of interest declared

Associate Professor Cilla Wehi and Professor Markus Luczak-Roesch, Co-Directors of Te Pūnaha Matatini, comment:

We see the Science System Advisory Group’s aspiration to enhance government effectiveness using scientific data and knowledge as a positive step. Their commitment to developing innovative solutions to challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss and sociological change fits with Te Pūnaha Matatini’s focus on multi-disciplinary expertise, the power of working collaboratively together, and the value of a complex systems approach.

The personal cost that accompanies experiences such as precarity, job loss, burnout, academic bullying, hyper-competition and fragmented funding schemes, mean that systemic change is necessary. The Science System Advisory Group acknowledges that these issues limit the performance of the system. We therefore look forward to their recommendations with interest.

Similarly, the University Advisory Group indicates government commitment to a thriving higher education system, and is tasked with outlining challenges and opportunities, and the effectiveness of the funding system to deliver higher education. This group will consult with the sector, and we look forward to being part of this consultation process.

No conflict of interest declared.

Associate Professor Kirsten Locke, Principal Investigator at Te Pūnaha Matatini and Associate Professor in Critical Studies in Education at Waipapa Taumata Rau the University of Auckland, comments:

“Nearly 40 years ago, universities in Aotearoa New Zealand were set up as competitive institutions. This era is now coming to an end. The news that the government has established two working groups to consider Aotearoa’s research system and the university system heralds a new era with new opportunities.

The terms of reference for the University Advisory Group show us the extent to which the ways universities have worked for the past four decades will change. The broad focus of these terms of reference point to radical structural change across the entire university system. With the constrained funding environment, decline in domestic university-aged population and increasingly diverse post-school pathways, it is likely that they will be tasked to find ways to do more with less funding.

It is likely that there will be a strong focus on a student-centred approach that prioritises teaching. The Tertiary Education Commission has singled out student retention as an important issue, because of the negative effects on a thriving university system caused by the amount of students not completing their undergraduate degrees.

The gravity of the challenge facing this advisory group is immense, and I hope that they are able to fulfil the promise of the university system for building an Aotearoa of which we are all proud, rather than ushering in another era of austerity.

No conflict of interest declared.

Professor Troy Baisden, Co-President of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, Honorary Professor at the School of Environment, University of Auckland, Motu Affiliate, and Principal Investigator at Te Pūnaha Matatini Centre of Research Excellence, comments:

“The government appears to have a process underway at speed and is clearly willing to make decisions.  There are significant benefits of making this move, but it is notable there are many risks and unknowns. Nevertheless the sector will rejoice that something is underway to address the cavernous uncertainty that was growing by the day given budget cuts, the end of National Science Challenges, and the cancellation of the previous reform, as well as Wellington Science City’s infrastructure funding.

“A key question that remains is whether the panels will have been able to support decisions in the Government’s Budget, to be announced on 30 May when the first report from one of the panels is due a month later. The panels on the research system and the university system will stagger their activity, with each undertaking two stages.

“It is excellent news that the wider research system and the crisis in our universities will be addressed with some coherence, recognising that for now, there are panels working for two separate ministries and ministers. There is already rejoicing on social media about the cancellation of the  Performance Based Research Fund’s (PBRF) upcoming “Quality Evaluation” in 2026. From my perspective, this is overdue because the $315m per annum PBRF lifted the quality of universities very effectively through 2017, but a different system is needed to maintain quality. This should focus on being a just funding system that favours excellence in collaboration and nation-building over the hyper-competition that it fuelled. Could it put more funding in collaborative bodies, such as the Centres of Research Excellence rather than in the chancelleries?

“The intent of the reform is largely aligned with what scientists have asked for, at least in principle. Important questions that deserve to be asked again after some progress from a 2010 review was reversed will include whether the 32 year experiment with unique Crown Research Institutes needs to consider a restructuring. Clearly something is needed for the tech sector given the problems at Callaghan Innovation. In the primary sector, Plant & Food research has become an excellent model for an effective organisation at the heart of an industry-wide national strategy. But when it comes to environmental and hazards issues right up through the challenge of climate change, wouldn’t we do better to have a system that delivers open knowledge, compatibility with universities as well as international institutions and funding. Couldn’t we focus on trust rather than consultancy?

“At the heart of the New Zealand Association of Scientists’ wish list is a set of questions about whether the reform will succeed, or become another in the failed reforms of the past 35 years. We ask:

  • Can the reformed system be more just, transparent and accountable, valuing national and international communities of researchers in the process?
  • Can the system value the careers of our people who want to go into research, and do less to exchange them on an international market of labour where current settings would lead to a brain drain?
  • Can the system maintain and enhance the international leadership in indigenous research that has been made and recognised internationally?
  • Can this system establish a base of research funding that begins to approach peer nations, rather than leaving us below a critical mass of support high quality work in many fields that support our society, our economy and our environment into the future?”

Conflict of interest: Receives research funding and was on the Reference Panel for Te Ara Paerangi.