How to make a world-class university

University education is a privilege, not a right, and if we treated it that way we might just get better results

Great universities cost big bucks. Government funding, benefactor donations and student fees all add up to support excellence… The debate in New Zealand last month was all about the fees.

It costs approximately £9000 a year in fees to attend university in Britain. To study at Harvard as an undergraduate involves fees of almost US$39,000. In New Zealand the fees are generally less than $6000. 

Vice Chancellor of The University of Auckland, Professor Stuart McCutcheon, has been castigated because he suggested that New Zealand should have a great university - and that in order to achieve world class excellence, charging higher fees should be allowed. Unsurprisingly, there was an outcry from the Students’ Association. But the reality is that New Zealand universities are slipping down the global rankings at least in part because of poor funding.

For New Zealand, the rankings are important because they indicate ability to educate the future workforce. If we can’t do it as well as other countries, the ‘best and brightest’ will vote with their feet, lured by scholarships and fee deals that are available to the elite performers. There is no guarantee that they will return.

New Zealand’s approach to education is egalitarian, and is part of the overall problem. Education is more of an entitlement than the privilege for top academic performers that it used to be. Entitlement has been linked by researchers at the University of Otago to poor performance.

Open access underpins entitlement – most school leavers engage in tertiary education and 47% complete a degree qualification (58% if international students are included); the figure for domestic students in Australia is 34% and in the US is 35%.                                                                                                                                                      Engagement is facilitated by government support. Over 90% of students in New Zealand have access to government support through allowances, fees and scholarships. OECD data published in Education at a Glance 2014 put New Zealand and Sweden as the most generous countries; Australia has just over 80% of students supported, the US has 76% and the UK has 70%. 

Of note is that despite student perceptions to the contrary, the fees they pay are only a small component of the cost. In dollar terms (adjusted for PPP GDP) the amount going to New Zealand universities in fees and government support per student is just over US$14,000; in Australia it is $21,636 and in US it is over US$31,000. Although New Zealand students pay a higher proportion of the costs (23% according to the OECD) than students in Australia and the US (17%), in actual dollars their input is small.

The OECD also reports that New Zealand’s expenditure on tertiary education is slightly higher than the OECD average (1.9% of GDP cf 1.4%). 

The problem for the universities is that a considerable proportion (approximately half) of the government funding goes to the students either as loans (35%) or scholarships (14%), not the tertiary education providers. This is in contrast to the rest of the world; the OECD average is 12% scholarships and 10% loans. This level of government support also supports the entitlement attitude.

Despite the relatively supported position of students, many of them are in paid employment while studying. 

In 2012, almost 12,000 students were surveyed about their financial arrangements by Universities Australia. Key findings were that the average income of full-time students in 2012 was substantially higher than in 2006, but that reliance on income from family and from government student allowances had increased. Despite this extra funding, students indicated that they were experiencing far greater financial stress in 2012 than in 2006, and reported higher debt. Expenditure for undergraduates increased from A$27,319 in 2006 (adjusted for CPI) to A$37,020 in 2012 – (which is greater than the minimum wage for full time work).

To enable this expenditure, over 80% of students worked (in comparison with 85.5% in 2006) and the average employment for undergraduates was 16 hours a week, up from 14.8 in 2006. Overall, a quarter of the employed undergraduate full-time students were working over 20 hours a week. 

The students acknowledged that employment decreased their capacity to learn. Over 50% of full-time undergraduate students reported that increased hours of work affected their performance at university. This was a 10% increase from 2006. A third of domestic students reported missing classes regularly because of work commitments.

For these students, work and lifestyle were more important than the education for which society still pays the bulk.

Research from The University of California reported in 2010 that full-time students allocated 40 hours per week towards class and studying in 1961. By 2003 the time allocation was down to 27 hours (16% of a week). More recently Professor Richard Arum of New York University led research which surveyed over 2,300 students in four-year college courses. On average students in a typical semester spent approximately 15 hours a week attending lectures and labs, between 12 and 14 hours per week studying, but a third of the time studying was spent with peers in social settings ‘which are not generally conducive to learning’.

Over a third of students reported that they spent five or fewer hours per week studying alone. 

In New Zealand the Sovereign Well-being Index released last year indicated that young people felt the most ‘unconnected’ in New Zealand and 60% of young people reported that they felt depressed because ‘they often lack the money to interact in many real world situations’. At the same time, tertiary students were reported in the news as saying ‘they are living in poverty and that the current living costs loans need to be increased substantially’.

In response, Minister Steven Joyce suggested that students should approach their tertiary education decisions as they would any other major investment decision. "They [should] think carefully about their options, what they want to achieve, the costs, the career opportunities they will get, and the kinds of support available to them." "Many of those on student allowances or student loans top that up with part-time work and/ or support from family,” he said. "That has always been the case."

The difference is in how many people engaged in tertiary education.

In the 1960s under 5% of school leavers went to university, and tertiary education was treated as the ‘job for the next three years’. Earning money for fees (minor) and books (expensive – the web hadn’t been invented and nor had study guides) happened between semesters.

Now most school leavers enter tertiary education, and a relatively small proportion of costs are paid as fees. Top students (more than 3% of school leavers) are on scholarships which pay fees and some have sufficient funds for living expenses as well. Top students usually attend lectures and study in the library. Some of them are also in employment – but in between lectures. Their priority is learning. 

A considerable amount of tax payer money goes into supporting universities and student loans with the goal of creating an educated workforce. Professor McCutcheon has stated that quality comes at a price. He has also reported that Australian universities operate on approximately twice the income per students as those in New Zealand whereas Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT - but not to be confused with the south Auckland institution), has seven times the funding per student. 

Students in New Zealand are not disadvantaged in terms of access to study, but to create a better funded education system requires growth in the economy – and that requires technological change which in turn is facilitated by educated people.

Students are the future. Feeling grateful for the support they are given and concentrating on absorbing knowledge, would assist the change, but they won’t be able to facilitate the change unless they take study seriously; it is difficult to learn in absentia.

The fundamental problem with attendance is not the level of fees paid – the US and Australian students pay more fees but still skip classes… it is the general expectation that tertiary education is a right.

Making university entrance a competitive process could reinvigorate the system. New Zealand universities could then concentrate on enabling top performers to achieve great heights, which is what great universities do….