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The university quality versus access debate

March 13, 2010

Auckland Museum (photo: Mark McGuire CC By)

University of Auckland Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stuart McCutcheon, has voiced his concerns about the effects of university under-funding on TVNZ’s “Breakfast” show (Monday 8 March, 2010). He also outlined his views on this topic at the University’s Distinguished Alumni Awards dinner in Auckland on 5 March, 2010. In this speech, which you can read here, Professor McCutcheon comments that reduced funding has resulted in “a much greater focus on university education as a limited rather than limitless resource, and therefore something to be valued rather than a free good.” He notes that university fees are lower in New Zealand than in Australia, Canada, the UK and the US, and he suggests that “a university education creates an appreciable private good for the student”. Professor McCutcheon explains that maintaining access to university through low fees (and, presumably, interest-free student loans), requires scarce financial resources that might otherwise be used to maintain the quality of universities. “We want an accessible low cost university system,” he says, “but we must not let that happen at the expense of our universities’ quality”.

Professor McCutcheon joined Professor David Skegg, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Otago, in an interview on Radio New Zealand’s Nine to Noon radio show on Friday 12 March to discuss the brain drain that has resulted from the underfunding of universities. They both highlighted the difficulties in recruiting and retaining top notch academics in New Zealand when other countries can offer higher salaries, more attractive benefits, and better resources. As long as government funding continued to decline, they suggested, money would need to be shifted from student to institutional support in order to preserve the quality of the system.

Are access and quality mutually exclusive?  How would universities (and the university experience) change if access was increasingly denied due to higher fees and further restrictions on enrollments? Can you think of some innovative strategies for increasing both the access to and quality of higher education?

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