7 May 2012
Something of a discussion almost started last week when University of Auckland Vice-Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon published an opinion piece in the NZ Herald arguing that if New Zealand wished to have world class universities it had better spend more on them.
He pointed out that the ranking of New Zealand universities in “Top World Class University” lists was steadily falling. Of course there are a number of these lists so no doubt we like to refer to lists on which NZ does well but currently they all make for challenging reading. In the highly regarded Shanghai Jiao Tong 2011 Academic ranking of World Universities, New Zealand had no universities in the top 100, indeed the top 200. Australia had four in the top 100.
The top ten universities in the world were: Harvard (No.1 for many years), MIT (Massachusetts not Otara!), UC Berkeley, University of Cambridge, Caltech, Princeton, Columbia (NY), Chicago and Oxford.
In wondering about solutions, VC McCutcheon noted that having fewer students at university would be one way provided the same amount of money was available. But I have another solution.
In the late 1990s Lord Dearing posited that there was a quantum of population required to generate a world class university – I think it was about 4 million people. On that basis New Zealand could perhaps have reasonable aspirations to have one world class university, Australia five, the UK fifteen and so on. That seems about right.
So if New Zealand is to have one world class university it can only be the University of Auckland on current ratings. So a decision should be made that the funding models and emphases of that university will be driven towards achieving Top 100 status.
Wait a minute, there is another factor to be taken into account here – the size of the university. If you look at a selection of the world’s best universities the size is surprisingly small: Stanford University – 15,500; Harvard University – 21,000; MIT (US) – 10,894; Oxford University – 21,000 and University of Cambridge – 18,000.
University of Auckland has 40,000 students. Can it hope to compete?
Another factor. If you look at the small set of top world-class universities, the ratio of undergraduate students to postgraduate students is as follows:
Stanford University – undergraduate students 44%: postgraduate students 56%; Harvard University – 31%:69%; MIT (US) – 40%:60%; Oxford University – 55%:44%; University of Cambridge- 66%:33%. So the USA universities are markedly weighted towards postgraduate students.
The University of Auckland has 75% undergraduate and 25% postgraduate students. Can it hope to compete?
Interestingly, the other New Zealand ratios in this regard are: Massey 76%:24%; Canterbury 86%:14%; Waikato 84%:16%; Victoria 76%:24% and Otago 78%:22%. So three New Zealand universities have very similar ratios. 
Here is my plan for New Zealand to get into the Top 100 university list and stay there.
- The University of Auckland should be designated our university for which this is a goal – New Zealand’s World Class University
The justification for this is its current superior world ranking when compared to the rest and its situation. It is in New Zealand’s largest city which has a wide range of tertiary provision therefore freeing up the University of Auckland to have a special goal – Massey, AUT, the two Polytechnics (Unitec and MIT(NZ)) and Te Wananga o Aotearoa can provide excellent tertiary education for Auckland to complement the narrower and targeted approach the University of Auckland would be taking.
In light of the above information about Top 100 universities, the University of Auckland must also consider two further actions:
- reducing its size by 50%:
- shifting the balance of undergraduate to postgraduate students to something closer to that of the top USA universities.
Were this solution accepted, there would be no need for reduced student numbers in tertiary programmes, simply a redistribution of numbers across Auckland providers. A smaller University of Auckland focussed on research and predominantly concerned with postgraduate university education would quickly return to the Top 100 list at no additional cost to the government. To achieve this the University of Auckland might have to be funded on a different basis to the rest, so be it.
Yes, this is elitist, so is Valerie Adams winning the shot putt and our rowers winning races and the high regard in which so many aspects of New Zealanders achievements are held. Well, I think we just have to accept that, get over it and move on. To think that we can have more than one world class university is sheer stupidity and it is even quite insane to hold back our best chance on some spurious egalitarian argument.