By - Wayne Linklater 14/07/2016 3

The Chief Science Advisor to the New Zealand Prime Minister thinks New Zealand’s university academics are less engaged in policy-making by government than those in other countries.

Source of image:
Source of image: The Guardian

Perhaps it was an unplanned, throw-away, line in Sir Peter Gluckman’s wide-ranging presentation for the Science & Society Series at Victoria University today (13 July), but it grabbed my attention.

Peter gave only cursory explanations for his belief, like academics not asking policy-relevant questions etc., but none were developed arguments or evidential. His belief, however, is important – partly because he holds it, but especially if it is true. Is it true? I don’t know. But let us assume it is. Why might it be so?

Since the mid-1980s, neo-liberal government policies have radically changed the functioning of universities and their relationships with government and their communities. Essentially, governments have increasingly steered universities through their commissions and ministries, using financial incentives and punishments to do so while, at the same time, overall government funding has declined.

Change upon change have been hoisted onto the tertiary education sector by recurrent reviews and structural change. There were seven government reports and reviews of the tertiary sector, 1987-2001, and three reviews by the Tertiary Education Commission, 2005. Most recently the Productivity Commission has turned its attention to the sector. A new structure reduced university councils in 2015. Tertiary education received $4.53 billion in 2009/10, but only 4.18 billion in the 1014/15 year.

All this change-management has been based on the assumption that, left to themselves – as the 1989 Education Act’s clauses about university and academic freedoms intended – universities are inefficient and incapable, without central government, of exercising their professional expertise and judgement to address community needs.

Policy work penalised

Instead, funding has been tied to evaluation processes like the Performance-Based Research fund (PBRF) and forced universities to track and chase politicised and targeted financial instruments (cf. bulk funding), and imposed a growing administrative reporting burden on academics. University funding has become, in large part, determined by academic publishing and publication metrics, like journal impact factors, that are poor measures of an academics broader, more important, roles and value to communities and government.

Under the PBRF system of performance evaluation, academics who engage with policy-focused work, that is inherently less likely, or slower, to generate high-impact publications, are penalised. Ironically therefore, neo-liberal governments’ good intentions for universities have back-fired. By imposing central systems of evaluation and performance accounting on academics and universities they have discouraged their engagement with policy-makers and policy-making. Neo-liberal governments committed with tertiary education the same error as communist governments – how sweetly ironic. Academies in their very nature are creative, innovative and engaged. Central command and control of the academy is counter-productive.

Think of this as my hypothesis for Peter’s observation if it is found to be true. We should seek evidence for it and other alternative hypotheses. If I am correct, then Peter’s advice to government should be to release university academics from government steerage. University academics will be responsive to the needs of its community when they are allowed to be.

This hypothetical treatment aside, however, I am not sure Peter is correct in his assertion. I suspect my colleagues in Faculty, Schools and Centres of Education, Psychology, Criminology, Law, Commerce, the Environment and Health, to name just a few, will be horrified to learn of Peter’s belief – it is quite likely wrong.

After Peter’s comment grabbed my attention, I couldn’t let it go and so this weblog post resulted. To achieve it, I diverted time and thinking away from a grant proposal for new pest control technologies that is due to the Royal Society today, reviewing materials for the National Science Challenge (Biological Heritage), revising a manuscript on the psychological benefits of ‘greener’ neighbourhoods and tree planting, and preparing a public lecture on species conservation. None of these activities, of course, directly involve policy-makers, although all of them produce publicly available materials. I don’t feel disengaged with public policy – far from it. But are policy-makers paying attention?

3 Responses to “Are Kiwi academics less engaged in govt policy-making?”

  • Compounding the issue is that constant change has serously affects the absorptive of our Govt Ministries to take up and use policy relevant research.

  • Ah, Wayne, I don’t know about academics “less involved”, but I do know that I’ve had blank stares & nervous shuffling even when I suggest they go and talk to their local MPs (usually following my hearing another complaint from a fellow academic about the Govt not doing enough).

  • Sir Peter’s observations also apply to CRIs, unless the science is directly contracted by policy organisations like Govt departments. Publishing in high impact journals often means local audiences don’t see the work and even if they do, writing for an international audience means you can’t include much about the local policy implications.

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