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Controversial Reform in New Zealand

January 8, 2008

New Zealand’s leading research university and academic trend-setter has said it will move this year to restrict admissions to its undergraduate programs.

The overhaul, announced last month by the University of Auckland and widely expected to be echoed by at least three of New Zealand’s other seven universities over the coming weeks, marks a first for the South Pacific nation, where unrestricted access to courses at the country’s publicly funded universities has long been an underlying assumption of the undergraduate experience in most programs.

Under the country’s current Labor Party-led administration, however, the curtain has been pulled down on the traditional arrangement by which higher-education funding was allocated on the basis of the number of full-time students enrolled at an institution. Universities will now receive funding instead based on the perceived quality of their research.

Auckland has indicated that, as a consequence, it will focus more on graduate level research activity while trimming back on its cohort of undergraduate admissions over the coming decade. It currently enrolls 38,000 students, about three-quarter of them undergrads. The university has not said how it plans to determine eligibility now that age and recognized high school qualifications will not automatically secure admission as they have in the past.

The university, which is also the country’s largest, says it expects the proportion of graduates to accordingly increase by another quarter during the same period.

The enrollment emphasis had changed “from getting larger to getting better,” said the university’s president, Stuart McCutcheon, announcing the decision.

The move has been criticized as “elitist” and, pejoratively, Americanized -- taken to mean allowing for a three-tier system of higher learning in which institutional leaders and the also-rans are clearly separated -- with the president of the New Zealand Association of University Staff, Nigel Haworth warning that New Zealand had effectively imported “a status-based model” to its formerly egalitarian shores.

While the faculty union wanted “to see universities of high-quality research,” Haworth added, “what we are witnessing here isn’t just about a new funding model but rather a whole new configuration of universities in New Zealand.”

It could be that the immediate inspiration for the shift came not from the United States but closer to home. Nearby Australia’s own leading University of Melbourne has also recently moved to substantially restrict undergraduate numbers in favor of an American-style makeover.

Melbourne says it expects its undergraduate rolls to fall by as much as 10 percent over the next three years as it rolls out a slew of new professional schools, many headed by freshly recruited North American deans, which are scheduled to be fully up and running by 2011. That move, too, mirrors the recent conversion of some European universities to a similar model to that now being entertained for the first time by the Kiwis: a general undergraduate program followed by professional graduate courses.

Warned the New Zealand union leader: “We can see that some academic leaders in this part of the world hold the vision of an American-style system already.”

 

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