Educating New Zealand
In the field of higher education the historical principle has been especially active, constantly reinforced as it has been by the importation of university teachers from Great Britain or the appointment to chairs and lectureships of men and women who, though colonial-born, have studied in British universities. The British universities themselves are not all of one pattern, and they have been the homes of many faiths and many causes. Yet there is a British 'idea' of a university. It has been stated in general terms by Ernest Barker:
'The aim of a university is, in the first place, to give the highest and final stage of general education to undergraduate students between the age of 18 and that of 22, partly with a view to preparing them for a specific profession or calling (such as that of engineering or, again, of medicine), but partly, and still more, with a view to preparing them to do work of a better quality, in virtue of the better training they have received, in any profession or calling which they page 151may subsequently enter. A university fulfils this first aim, not only through the intellectual equipment it provides, but also through the moral quality of the common life which its existence brings into play—a common life of residence, issuing in various forms of spontaneous social activity which serves as a discipline and a stimulus to all upon whom it acts. . . .
'The second aim of a university is to promote and conduct research in the humanities and the various branches of science, partly through its professors and lecturers, and partly through the graduate students whom it attracts, and this with a view both to increasing the sum of human knowledge, and to deepening the current of human thought, so that the university may serve the national community in which it is set (and as far as possible the world at large) as leader and guide in the fields of theology and philosophy, letters and history, politics and economics, science (both pure and applied), and the other interests and activities of the human mind.'*
Influential as these ideas have been, they have never found full expression in practice. Of the two aims Barker distinguishes, the first has always very much overshadowed the second. Research has been in the background, although a limited amount, some of it of first-rate importance, has been done; and while some university teachers have been acknowledged intellectual leaders, the impact of the university on the social and cultural life of the community has in general been less marked than might have been expected. Teaching and learning at the undergraduate level have dominated the scene, and that process has been more than in the homelands a matter of syllabus and text-book, lecture and examination. Relatively few New Zealand graduates have had any experience of the 'common life of residence' of which Barker speaks; some have never attended a university college even as part-time students. As in all modern universities there has been over the years a steady widening of the range of subjects and courses. Some notion of the scope and diversity of the work at present carried out by the six constituent colleges of the University may be gathered from the fact that degrees are granted in arts, science, law, commerce, medicine, dentistry, architecture, engineering, agriculture, forestry, home science, and music, and diplomas in educa-page 153tion, public administration, journalism, banking, fine arts, and public health. Developments here have generally though not invariably followed British precedents.
Of the immediate causes of divergence the most important are to be found in the composition of the student body and the nature of our university organisation. Those who have sought higher education in New Zealand have come rarely from well-to-do homes that looked on attendance at a university college as a means of acquiring social and intellectual polish, and frequently from homes with very modest incomes. In any case, the typical New Zealand family has never been as ready as its Scottish counterpart to make heavy sacrifices to put a son or daughter through a university course. The Dominion has met the situation by making it easy for part-time and extra-mural students to obtain degrees.* Lectures have been provided, especially in subjects for arts, law, and commerce degrees, before or after working hours, and there has been a liberal supply of bursaries giving free tuition. The number of scholarships covering living expenses as well as tuition has, by contrast, been relatively limited. The entrance examination, moreover, has never been as formidable a test as the comparable examinations in Great Britain.
* Incidentally, New Zealand was the first country in the Empire to admit women to university degrees.
Unhappily, the administrative organisation of the university, and the material conditions under which university teaching has been carried on, have worked strongly in the same direction. From the earliest days of the colony there were men who looked forward to the time when New Zealand would have a university. In Canterbury provision had been made for higher education in the scheme for the college and grammar school contained in the original plan of the settlement, itself largely the work of Christ Church, Oxford, men. But the ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge with their residential colleges and tutorial methods of individual instruction did not offer models that could easily be reproduced page 156in miniature in a pioneer land. Apart from purely physical obstacles, including the cost of such an enterprise, there was the difficulty that traditions so aristocratic and so exclusively Anglican were at no stage acceptable to more than a small minority of the colonists. The Otago Scots, on the other hand, brought with them not merely a reverence for professors but a tradition that lent itself readily to transplantation. The non-residential Scottish universities had for centuries been avenues through which many in relatively poor circumstances had made their way into the ministry or medicine, law or the teaching profession, so that there was scarcely a village without some university connection. The Scots therefore regarded universities as part of the normal pattern of life and were determined to have one as soon as they could. By 1867 when the gold rushes had brought population and comparative prosperity to the South Island, Otago saw no reason for further delay and its university, which it hoped would become a colonial institution, was founded by provincial ordinance two years later. But although New Zealand has borrowed much from Scotland (the lecturing system, for example, is largely Scottish in origin), and has always been influenced in some degree by Oxford and Cambridge (witness the desire to establish halls of residence), her university organisation was actually modelled in the first place on that of the University of London.page 157
This compromise was unsatisfactory from the first, and there was so much discontent that as early as 1878 a royal commission was set up to enquire into university affairs. The professors, notably Shand, Black, Macgregor, and Bickerton, attacked the external examination and the Senate's policy of affiliating secondary schools, seeing in both a threat to true university standards. Macgregor told the commission that 'the whole system of examination by papers alone will produce the most mischievous effects on the education of this country'. The commission condemned the policy of indiscriminate affiliation, recommended the establishment of university colleges at Auckland and Wellington, and made other proposals that if carried into effect would have greatly improved teaching conditions and given the individual colleges and the individual professors a good deal of liberty. The practical effects were page 159extremely small. The chill of economic depression was already being felt and there was no enthusiasm for proposals involving the expenditure of money. Auckland, it is true, got its college in 1883, but it was not until 1899 that one was established at Wellington. The Senate's faith in the virtues of the external examination remained unshaken: it rejected the commission's recommendation that degree examinations should in future be conducted in New Zealand and adhered to the policy of appointing examiners in Britain.
The enthronement of the external examination combined with the financial difficulties of the colleges produced conditions not dissimilar to those in the primary schools of the period with their large classes, their lack of equipment, and their pre-occupation with measurable results. In comparison with even the poorest of the universities of Great Britain the New Zealand colleges have always been understaffed, and it is only in recent years that their libraries and laboratories have begun to approach overseas standards? It soon came to be understood that a university college was a place to which you went to assimilate from lectures and a few text-books the quantum of information necessary to pass examinations for a degree. As the present Vice-Chancellor of the University has said, perhaps the strongest criticism of the system devised by the act of 1874 is 'the influence it exerted on the stalwarts who had so page 160brilliantly shot it to ribbons before the Commission Macgregor retired to other work, becoming Inspector-General of Hospitals; Bickerton remained faithful to his old love, research, but frustrated in the University wandered into fields of which his college did not approve and his academic career came to an end; Shand, with his sturdy Scots character, faithfully performed for so long his routine duties under the scheme that he came to approve it; and Black whose temperament was not suited to the drudgery of routine found his interest in other fields of activity. The system proved too strong for them. Inter-college rivalry and provincial jealousy, the lack of libraries, the exclusion from any real part in the judgment of the work of their students, the tendency of some governing bodies to judge university work mainly by examination results, the absence of sabbatical years . . . all tended to stereotype academic methods and standardize interests. The pity of it, because I very much doubt whether at any time since, the university has had a staff more alive to the educational needs of the community, more interested in advanced methods of teaching and more enthusiastic in the discharge of their duties.'*
In the years just before the Great War a very energetic movement for reform took shape. Many influences contributed to it, among them the stirrings in the primary and secondary fields, an extremely thoroughgoing and able criticism of university education in New Zealand by Professor D. Starr Jordan of the Leland Stanford Junior University, California, and the report of the royal commission on the University of London. The upshot was the creation in Wellington in 1910 of a University Reform Association which was led by a group of Victoria University College professors who had the support of discontented colleagues in other centres. The reformers made the charge that 'the University's disregard of the principles of education had led to carelessness in the appointment of teachers, poor facilities for teaching, the absence of adequate libraries, the neglect of research.' They asked for a larger share of self-government for the colleges, more freedom for the teacher, the abolition of the external examination, better teaching conditions—and for a royal commission on university affairs.page 163
The agitation had some immediate effects, but the reformers had to wait until 1925 for their royal commission. Both the general verdict of the second royal commission—'that the New Zealand University offers unrivalled facilities for gaining university degrees, but is less successful in providing university education'—and its concrete recommendations bore out the contentions of the Reform Association. One major proposal, that the University should become a federal institution 'charged with definite responsibility for teaching, but allowing the constituent colleges greater freedom in developing their own curricula and in holding examinations', was put into partial operation through the New Zealand University Amendment Act of 1926. A year or two before, the first breaches had been made in the external system of examinations, and since then the responsibility for examining has been slowly transferred to the teaching staff. At the time of the outbreak of war there were several subjects in which the setting and examining of papers at all stages were conducted in New Zealand. The war itself, by confronting professors with the choice of agreeing on a scheme of internal examination or having their students' papers examined in Australia, has accelerated the trend. Agreement on a scheme of examining internal to New Zealand is not, however, by any means a complete solution of the problem. To teach according to a syllabus common to three other colleges, and try to reach an understanding page 164on the details of examining and standards may be a difficult and distracting process. At its worst it may mean, as one university teacher has recently complained, that a professor makes 'crippling compromises with colleagues whose approaches to questions differ from his own as widely and fundamentally as they are equally justifiable and legitimate', while his students are faced with examination papers consisting of 'a piebald mosaic of unrelated questions, which betray no common intention. . . .' As a partial remedy, the University has decided that from 1941 each college will, in all subjects for B.A. and B.Sc., take over full responsibility for the examination of its Stage I students. The centennial year therefore found the University moving rapidly away from a system that had stood firm against criticism for half a century and even now is stoutly defended in some quarters.
Directly or indirectly the university colleges are dependent on the State for a considerable part of their revenue. There have been few large endowments from private sources. University spokesmen have never had any difficulty in showing that in comparison with Britain for instance, government grants have been small, and they have often gone on to argue that this is symptomatic of indifference on the part of governments and the community to the claims of higher education. There is truth in this contention, but it may be doubted if the position is precisely as page 165is sometimes suggested, particularly when comparisons are made with the treatment given to other branches of the education service. A university that forms part of a more-or-less democratised education system stands in a different relation to primary and post-primary schools from one in which university education is still largely a class privilege. In the former case good teaching conditions and everything that makes for professional alertness are no less important in the infant room than in the university, and the onus is on any section of the service that claims special rights and privileges to show that they are strictly relevant to the special functions it under-takes to perform. Actually there is no branch of the service that has not at one time or another seen itself in the role of Cinderella, and it is hard to think of instances in which the imperative needs of the university have been sacrificed to the less imperative needs of, let us say, the primary schools. At all events, as a result of the liberal financial policy of the present government, coupled with the assistance of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which made grants for university libraries and gave the colleges art and music sets, many of the outstanding disabilities of which the colleges complained have been removed during the past few years.
The development of the university curriculum, and of its methods of teaching, has been in line with the process of differential adaptation described in the first page 166chapter of this book. The need for change was felt first in connection with those studies that had an obvious bearing on the practical affairs of life. Thus in 1868 we find Macandrew, the Superintendent of Otago, urging the newly-formed University Council to make provision not only for classical and metaphysical studies, but also for a school of mines and of agricultural chemistry. In the same way the natural scientists among the early professors were quick to realise not only the special opportunities New Zealand offered for research but also the need for advanced technical training definitely related to the colony's basic industries. It is significant too that in making early provision for degrees in science New Zealand was well abreast of movements abroad. Nor can it be said that she was slow to establish special schools for the training of professionals, doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers, and the rest. On the contrary the rivalry between the four main centres has often resulted not only in duplication of facilities and dispersion of resources that elementary common sense would have concentrated, but also in hasty and ill-conceived action designed to forestall possible moves on the part of other colleges.
By contrast with this concern about practical necessities neither the community nor, with some exceptions, the University itself was sensitive to the cultural realities of its environment and their implications for higher education. Here the emphasis fell page 167heavily on the transmission of culture rather than on its re-creation, the founders of the University assuming that the cultural needs of the New Zealand student would best be met through the traditional disciplines treated in the traditional way. Some there were who believed that it was a function of the university to bring critical intelligence and a sense of values to bear on the colonial scene, but their ideas found little expression in practice. A great opportunity to make the University a centre for Polynesian studies was missed, and local history and local literature received scant attention. In the same way it has only gradually been realised that a body of students who come, as many New Zealand students have, from bookless and art-starved homes, present an entirely different educational problem from that which faces Oxford and Cambridge. An interest in things of the mind has to be created. There is a special need for lively teaching, for opportunity for discussion, for a scheme of education that will show the linkages between text-book knowledge and the student's own experience. A conception of teaching that does not go beyond the dictation of notes and the correction of exercises is quite inappropriate. So much is now generally recognised, but in comparison with the American colleges, which have just our problem, we have been much more inclined to assume trustfully that what we teach really functions in the life of the student and, quite apart from practical difficulties, much less inclined to page 168experiment in method. The neglect, until recently, of all the arts with the single exception of language, is also symptomatic. Here again the Americans were well ahead of us and it is partly through their influence that we are coming to see that the arts have an essential place in general education at the university stage. As for the community, its cultural conservatism has been shown most clearly in its attitude towards academic freedom, one of the few British traditions it has always been inclined to suspect. Indeed, university life in New Zealand has suffered more from lack of stimulation than from the material difficulties which have so often been chronicled and deplored.
* Kandel in Education for Complete Living (1938), p. 449, has a pointed comment on Flexner, who in his Universities, American, English, German, attacked the vocationalism of some of the American universities. He asks 'whether the study of city planning, economic organization and modes of everyday living in Egypt, Athens, or Rome can be considered worthy of academic study, while research in similar problems in our own day should be left outside the scope of a university curriculum. Can a case be made out . . . for the thesis that aspects of life in the past are the proper sphere of academic and scholarly research, while the study of the same subjects that are pressing for solution at the present time should be relegated to technical and other institutions?'
The modern university belies its name. It has become a place of air-tight specialisms in which the student learns something from this teacher, something from that and must tie it all up as best he can. The old uniform classico-mathematical curriculum had at least the advantage that it created a common universe of discourse; the learned world of to-day is a Babel, and the whole idea of the university as a centre of co-operative intellectual effort is in danger of being lost. During the last twenty years or so there has been in many countries a strong movement towards integration. It has been increasingly recognised that page 170the specialist who does not understand the bearing of his own field of study on the general social and intellectual life of his time is not merely deficient as a professional, but also incapable of the 'continuous and critical self-adjustment' the modern citizen is called upon to make. One approach to a solution is through common introductory survey courses in contemporary civilisation, the sciences, and the humanities; another is through a reshaping of professional courses with the object of bringing out the broader philosophical and social bearings of the special field of study. There have been moves in New Zealand in both directions, but no university teacher who can see over the top of his own departmental cubicle regards the problem as even partially solved.
Returning to the main theme, one may summarise by saying that the struggle of the immediate future lies between those who want the University to conform more closely to the British pattern and those who would let geography push it into a shape somewhat similar to that of the American state university. There is a good deal of common ground. It is agreed, for example, that the number of full-time students should, if possible, be increased, and that degrees and diplomas should not be cheapened. The first group, however, if they had their way, would stiffen up entrance requirements very considerably, put a stop to extensions of the curriculum on the technical side, and even relegate to other institutions some of the page 171work the university colleges are now doing. The second group would apply to the University the same philosophy that underlies the abolition of the proficiency examination and the reorganisation of post-primary education. They agree that the first and essential duty of a university is to scholarship and research, but think it natural and desirable that in a country like ours the university should make itself responsible for functions of a wider and less academic kind. This implies the abandonment of the idea that the university exists to serve a small aristocracy of brains, and there are some who would admit anyone who has completed a post-primary course. Such a policy would force the university to revise its conception of a liberal education for a large number of its students. A system that encourages students to embark on courses that are far too advanced for them is in the highest degree wasteful from any point of view, and if entrance standards were further relaxed while the curriculum remained the same the position would become intolerable. The only possible solution would be through further differentiation of the curriculum (which would probably involve new relationships with the technical schools and with adult education) and the development of a system of educational guidance and selection within the University itself.