December 5, 1997


New Zealand universities under attack, says law professor

Government attempting to create "educational marketplace"

Folio Staff

Forcing universities to operate on the basis of market-driven principles is part of the New Zealand government's "unfinished business," says a University of Auckland law professor.

In a market-driven system, student assumptions of what the market demands will increasingly dictate what courses and perspectives universities provide.
Student fees are increasing dramatically, social science research funding is dwindling and program funding is pouring into short-term market-driven programs, says Jane Kelsey, an outspoken critic of the sweeping economic and social reforms that have effected New Zealand since 1984.

Here to conduct research on Alberta's social and economic reforms and to deliver a talk sponsored by The Parkland Institute, entitled "Debunking the Myth of New Zealand's Success Story," Kelsey says a recent government green paper outlines the government's plans, including the replacement of elected university councils with government-appointed councils.

"We've had a great deal of difficulty engaging in debate about these policies; they've been based on theory and no empirical work," Kelsey says. "Furthermore, there have been few details about implementation and details are to be worked out later."

The period of massive social and economic change in New Zealand has been tremendously debilitating for scholars. During the first 10 years, scholars were relatively quiet. Some spoke out, some changed sides and other remained silent, fearing they would be ostracized. Others lost jobs and research grants. Stalwart critics paid a high price, explains Kelsey. "In the last couple of years, however, a few people have begun to speak up. The economy is so unstable and we now have a better understanding of what's happening. More people are challenging the claims of the so-called 'successful society.'"

There's no doubt the New Zealand model is part of the current international orthodoxy, says Kelsey, who has studied the effects of these reforms in several western countries. The more hegomonic it becomes, the more difficult it is to critique. In the early 1980s, the prevailing Keynesian model was challenged by neo-liberals. They were well organized, well resourced and they took advantage of a scholarly community that suffered from intellectual laziness. By the time critics of this new orthodoxy got organized, it was too late.

"This is part of a pattern," she says. Create a crisis, move quickly and systematically embed the changes.

"Underpinning the privatization and internationalization agenda lies a fundamental ideological belief in the virtue and infallibility of global markets and a corresponding intolerance of alternative views," she says. "Universities provide a repository of historical knowledge, a source of critique and a breeding ground for competing ideas which challenge the portrayal of neo-liberalism as immutable and indisputable. As such, they present an obvious target for radical market-oriented restructuring."

Kelsey says it's particularly frightening to see the marginalization of alternative views. "In a market-driven system, student assumptions of what the market demands will increasingly dictate what courses and perspectives universities provide. Research funding dependent on private commercial sources, or grants from competitive public pools where government sets the priorities, are likely to support market-friendly projects and hypotheses and unlikely to favor critique.

"The resulting ideological closure will foster and protect the 'consensus' and limit the range of ideas in circulation on which the evolution of public opinion largely depends."

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