Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Student's Newspaper. Volume 31, Number 3. March 19 1968
The University Grants Committee, in its efforts to promote university interests on the one hand, and to dilute them to the point where they are acceptable to Government on the other, has been as successful as a man trying to stand upright with a bag of cement under each arm.
Set up by legislation in 1961, U.G.C. is an attempt to reconcile the conflicting but equally legitimate demands of university autonomy and public accountability.
Universities have traditionally sought freedom to control their curricula and financial expenditure, ensuring that their specialist interests and priorities are determined by themselves. But taxpayers expect the right to demand responsible and efficient use of public funds, education expenditure that is proportionate to allocations in other areas such as public works, social welfare and defence, and professional and technical programmes to satisfy the needs of the community.
The Committee also seeks to eliminate the conflict of interests betwen universities which effectively castrated the University of New Zealand. Under this system the larger universities bargained among themselves for allocations, and impeded the development of the smaller institutions. Their inability to present a united front in representation to Government substantially undercut their requests.
The members of the U.G.C. are appointed by the Governor-General in consultation with the Minister of Education and other educational advisors. Three are members of university staffs, and four prominent members of the community who have no direct academic connections; an inbuilt assurance that university needs will not be considered in isolation.
The functions of the Committee are to approve the curriculum and course regulations of each university, and to make recommendations to Government on financial appropriations for university development.
This latter function, called by Austin Mitchell the "do-it-yourself-on-a-shoe-string" process, includes determination of the size of the universities five-year block grants for internal use, recommendations on the extent of hostel subsidies, representations on staff salaries, and the award of scholarships and bursaries.
By its very nature, however, the Grants Committee is not only a co-ordinator but a filter, and bodies such as the Association of University Teachers and the New Zealand University Students' Association appear to believe it only presents to Government projects Government is prepared to accept.
It has been noticeable over the past twelve months that these pressure groups, have made representations on staff salaries, student-teacher ratios, and related matters to the Minister of Education, Mr. Kinsella, in the knowledge that it is Cabinet which dictates the size of financial appropriations for education.
In November of last year the Mayor of Palmerston North, Mr. Rennie, made representations to the Prime Minister on behalf of the Massey University Hall of Residence Appeal, and this was followed by an announcement from Mr. Holyoake that Mr. Kinsella would present an urgent report to Cabinet on the adequacy of present government expenditure for university hostels.
These moves amount to a deliberate by-passing of the U.G.C. and a weakening of its authority.
A specific area in which the Committee's authority is being progressively ignored is in the control of university prescriptions. The Universities Act of 1961 stales that no course regulations shall be effective until approved by the Committee.
However there are no provisions for the Committee to compel universities to alter their regulations. It can question provisions and refer them back, as it did when Victoria University made University Entrance Mathematics a prerequisite for a Public Administration unit, but it is powerless to force modifications.
The reference of a university's curriculum to the U.G.C. is merely an empty gesture. The provision was made as a sop to the government, some members of the public, and the New Zealand University Students' Association, all of whom wanted some machinery to make the modification of university courses possible in case of feared but unspecified abuses.
According to some academics, the Committee has been backward in exercising one of its general functions outlined in the Universities' Act as the initiation of "plans for such balanced university development as may be required to make the universities fully adequate to the needs of New Zealand."
It has not done this. When questioned about this function last year, Professor A. J. Danks, present chairman of the U.G.C., stated that the Committee considered proposals for development from the universities, special groups, or regions requiring a university, but he made no mention or the Committee's statutory right to initiate proposals as well as to consider them.
An area in which calls have come for greater coordination, and in which the Grants Committee could act but has not, is the teaching of Political Science. Members of Political Science departments have complained that in this subject New Zealand's resources are spread too thinly, and consequently there is an insufficient variety of papers offered at higher levels in this subject.
It has been suggested that the subject would more profitably be taught to the stage two or three level in most universities, and all honours work be concentrated in one department. But a modification such as this is unlikely unless the Grants Committee promotes it.
The two-way pull between the public demand for accountability and the university demand for autonomy ensures that the University Grants Committee will always be restricted in its effectiveness and popularity.
This is inevitable. A growing university will always have further demands, and a government will always try to economise.
But an admission that the present structure is not wholly adequate, because of the conflicts of interest inherent in a state-fiinanced university system, does not necessarily include a rejection of that structure. It is difficult to visualise a workable alternative.
An extension of the powers of the vice-chancellors' Committee would, in effect, re-create the inadequate University of New Zealand structure. A non-university committee set up by the government or Treasury would hardly be acceptable to unrepresented academics.
The U.G.C. is a marriage of these alternatives, and while it may never gain the unstinted applause of government, public and universities, it need not lose their confidence.
The quinquennial grant system has distributed money equitably, though the allocations have been considered insufficient by individual universities. Special grants have been refused, such as those for the University of Wai-kato's schools of Management Studies and Maori Studies. But it is unlikely that they would have been forthcoming through an alternative system, considering the amount of money the Government is prepared to devote to education at present.
What is needed is a Grants Committee prepared to put the universities' case realistically but firmly. If it is to be used, and if it is to be respected by Government, it must have the confidence of the individual universities and the pressure groups which promote their interests.