Long read
The university

The New Zealand model and the present-future of the university

The University of Canterbury is much like every other university in New Zealand, only more so. Its history goes back to the early days of the colony, as a college of the University of New Zealand. Modelled on Oxbridge, it had quads, professors with Oxbridge degrees, and brand-new gothic buildings. Tradition was the order of the day – albeit tradition that was both imported and invented. Dons wore gowns to give lectures well into the 1970s. As the most English city in the country, Christchurch has long been obsessed by schools. The university, with its reputation for elitism, played directly into this local form of snobbery.

When the university moved to its new campus on the edge of town in the 1970s, the Department of English was Canterbury’s largest, with more than twenty continuing staff. The curriculum, which was taught by a range of severe literary men, was indistinguishable from that of any provincial British university at the time. The organising principle was rigid historical progression – albeit in the wrong order: students began with Shakespeare or Dickens, and eventually wound up with Beowulf. The course listing gives a flavour: Old English, Middle English, Shakespeare, Early Renaissance, the Seventeenth Century, the Eighteenth Century, the Victorians, the Modern Novel, and Modern Poetry. The terminus of literature was marked by Virginia Woolf and EM Forster. New hiring was a routine affair. One ‘Eighteenth Century man’ would retire, quickly to be replaced by another Eighteenth Century man (who may well have been his student).

By the time I became an undergraduate in the English department in the mid-2000s, however, its fortunes had dramatically reversed. The syllabus listing had shrunk significantly, and only shrunk further while I was there. Never mind Chaucer or Milton, there was no Eliot, either – TS or George. Numerous courses were permanently suspended. Faculty numbers were declining, at first slowly and then rapidly. There were empty offices at one end of the faculty corridor. The staff room was long gone. This was all before the Canterbury earthquakes of 2010-12, which led to the closure of the university for extended periods, dramatic reductions in student numbers, and further cost-cutting initiatives across the College of Arts.

What happened at Canterbury is now happening in universities around the Anglophone world. Even if most news coverage of higher education focuses on quarrels over curricula and freedom of speech, humanities departments have in fact experienced a far deeper realignment, one that is three decades in the making. At different times and in different ways, the money has dried up. Departments are now increasingly faced with near-permanent understaffing, if they survive at all. Whole areas of research and teaching have disappeared. Canterbury’s past, I am suggesting, has become our shared present. To understand how and why, we can turn to the history of university funding in New Zealand, the country that led the world in the new ‘demand driven’ model for higher education.


Between 1989 and 1991, new funding arrangements for New Zealand’s universities were introduced. Rather than the government paying universities in block grants (through the ‘University Grants Committee’), the majority of university funding was now tied to student course preferences. These preferences were no longer centrally planned, but rather determined by students, and paid by a government-backed loan scheme. For universities, funding came in the form of a fixed amount provided per student by the government, along with this variable student co-payment.

From 1992, the newly autonomous tertiary education providers in New Zealand were able to set their own fees. The costs for students rapidly increased across New Zealand universities, putting an end to decades of free or near-free higher education. Student places also expanded. Until 1999, there was still a ‘moving cap’ in the number of places co-funded by the national government. After that, the cap was removed, and higher educational institutes became more fully demand-driven.

In the wake of these changes, and despite the rise in overall student numbers, universities across New Zealand implemented cost-cutting measures. Otago University began its restructuring initiatives in the aftermath of the Budget, leading to redundancies in the humanities. There were fractious disputes over redundancies and other matters at Victoria University in the late 1990s, when Vice-Chancellor Michael Irving – who students nicknamed ‘Chainsaw’ – launched a restructuring process which led to a union vote of no-confidence and Irving’s resignation. At Auckland University, the 1990s saw halts to building programmes, as well as staff redundancies. Canterbury in that period appeared to have weathered the changes well, surviving largely unscathed.

Further revenue growth per student was blocked by the Labour government in 2001, as it responded to political pressure by capping domestic fee increases. Unable to raise further revenue from each individual student, universities now sought more than ever to expand their student numbers. Yet in a small country there were only so many new students who could be attracted to university, especially as the wider economy bounced back. A limit had been reached within the market.

It was in this period that universities began seeking to poach students from each other. There is no better example of the perverse incentives the competitive model creates than this: our universities, which are in one way or another almost entirely financed by the nation, began engaging in an expensive marketing arms race. A nadir was reached after the earthquakes when other universities in New Zealand sought to attract students who might have otherwise gone to Canterbury.

Faced with structural shortfalls, and now tied to the economic cycle, many universities in the 2000s implemented further cost control measures and severer targets – there was no end to the period of volatility. At the departmental level, new budgetary models meant competing against other departments in their own universities. Prerequisite courses in humanities began to fall away, as departments tried to attract students to their courses at almost any risk. Beyond the explicit restructuring processes, freezes on hiring lines mean that academic posts often weren’t replaced when professors retired. The result for curricula was an array of courses thought to appeal to student-consumers, taught by the decreasing number of faculty who remained. Newly indebted students found that significantly more money was buying significantly less. Drop-out rates also rose, leaving many former students with government-backed debt and nothing to show for it.

Perversely, implementing these repeated rounds of restructuring led to a permanent rise in the cost of administering the university. ‘Executive Deans’ were hired to implement the changes, replacing deans who had been elected by the faculty. At the same time, universities sought to expand the revenue arm of the business, hiring staff in areas such as marketing, communications, recruitment and strategic development. Finance Minister Ruth Richardson’s ambition to empower the consumers of education, as she thought of them, ended up empowering a new managerial wing of the university.

It was in the early 2000s that the axe finally started to fall at Canterbury. The whole agonising process would eventually take well over a decade. It started with a change in management structure. In 2003, a new Vice-Chancellor began to restructure the institution into a six-college system. New managerial positions were created in each of the colleges, with their salaries set beyond that of the professoriate. Managerial pay continued to escalate, especially at the top level – Vice-Chancellor Rod Carr was paid NZD 650,000 in 2017.

When I began my second year at the university, in 2008, there were sixteen full-time continuing faculty in English. It was around this time that rumours began to spread about a severe financial crisis in the College of Arts. Staff were spooked. Press coverage was especially grim; I considered transferring elsewhere. By the time I graduated, in 2010, sixteen continuing staff posts (‘FTE’) in English had shrunk to just six. American Studies had been closed, language courses further trimmed down, and Art History was under pressure for its survival.

In any organisation, redundancies make it harder to retain staff, not just those fired but also those it wants to keep. This is as true of universities as it is of companies – those who can head for the exits tend to do so, taking with them their knowledge and more marketable skills. In the short-term, this is a desirable outcome for universities seeking to shed costs. The flight of staff ends faculty-hiring lines without having to make anyone redundant. Yet in the long term the institution ultimately picks up the cheque: not only have those with strong track records of publication, teaching, and administration taken their skills elsewhere, but an entire generation of faculty has been stripped out. With them goes the next group of leaders, doctoral students, and curriculum reinvigoration. Hiring new faculty becomes harder in future: no one wants to take a job, and move city or country to do so, only to run the risk of facing redundancy at the next downturn.

Facing large drops in faculty numbers, departments had to shift away from teaching a comprehensive undergraduate syllabus. In English, this meant that historical depth and coverage became limited. Difficult choices emerged between teaching courses that might be important for the public mission of the university, such as in New Zealand Literature, and attracting the students who would help to balance the books and retain staff. At Canterbury, the course on Māori authors writing in English was permanently suspended. It hasn’t been taught since.

The education that I ultimately received at Canterbury is a credit to the resilience of faculty working under the new model. Despite the severe difficulties they faced, my education was transformative. Yet what is known as ‘sweating the assets’ came with a cost – to staff research, to morale, to curricula range and depth, and to much else besides. That they made the best of it is a more than creditable achievement. However, we should not accept that educating our young people, preserving our literary culture, and honouring our Treaty obligations, relies on dedicated staff around the country doing so much with so little.

There is no real curriculum debate in universities in New Zealand: that would imply meaningful choice. Every English department has repeatedly been told to do more with less, to the point that those working on prose fiction have found themselves teaching Shakespeare, and entire swathes of literary history and geography have been by necessity left aside. Merged departments and newly slimmed-down faculties can only offer their students so much. What this means for a student of English in New Zealand is that if she is interested in either the concept of grace in literature, or the work of Patricia Grace, she won’t find many programmes for her. Battles over curricula are in that sense a phony war: the funding model that once supported comprehensive education in the humanities no longer exists in New Zealand.

After I graduated in 2010, I continued to go to the university each day. Borrowing a friend’s library card, I hunted out an old critical edition of Paradise Lost, and read it for the first time, there in the library. ‘The mind is its own place’, Milton writes. I was hungry for something that my education hadn’t given me.


I won a scholarship and arrived at Oxford for postgraduate study in 2012. To my surprise, though, once I started the course I found that I didn’t seem to know what everyone else knew. While my fellow students argued about Pound and Stevens (what era was it? and more importantly, who were they?), I realised that I had not written about a single line of poetry in any of my undergraduate essays.

I googled the name ‘Henry James’, as he seemed to be very important in after dinner chat. James was a nineteenth-century novelist, I discovered, although he kept writing into the twentieth. His novels were forbidding and difficult, I learnt. The last time I read anything from that distant and troubling era, at least as part of my education, might well have been at high school.

I began postgraduate study in the wake of England’s own version of the 1989–1991 reforms in New Zealand. The headline change was trebling tuition fees for incoming students in September 2012, a repeat of the shock experienced by incoming students in New Zealand two decades earlier. Like those 1989-91 reforms, the fee increases were merely one component of a more profound set of changes. State funding for the teaching component of universities was entirely stripped away and replaced with much higher student co-payments. An enlarged government-backed loan system was required to make this scheme viable. While the reforms were communicated to the public as a necessity brought on by the 2008 financial crisis, it is clear from the white papers and other policy documents from the time that one of the key aims of the reforms was to introduce greater competitiveness into the sector. The goal was to have a price system that actually worked.

As in New Zealand, the reforms themselves were ostensibly undertaken in the name of the consumer. The 2011 white paper that laid out the direction for universities – and for the fee rises – was entitled, Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System. The executive summary repeats in remarkably similar terms the ideas piloted in New Zealand two decades earlier. ‘We will tackle the micro-management that has been imposed on the higher education sector in recent years’, the authors wrote, ‘which has held institutions back from responding to student demand’. This new, student-centred university sector would no longer have numbers ‘allocated to each university … determined in Whitehall’. Rather, they would innovate and compete against each other. ‘Universities will be under competitive pressure to provide better quality and lower cost’, they said.

At the time, Stefan Collini wrote with frustration about the tendency of these communications to champion the consumer only as part of an attempt ‘to force through the financialisation and marketisation of more and more areas of life’. Following an old pattern, the settler colony came to act as a laboratory for social change in Britain, where the reforms finally arrived two decades later. Like the National Health Service, the old age pension, and much else besides, it had been trialled in New Zealand first.

The price system implemented by the Coalition government failed over the following years. Nearly every university in the country immediately charged the maximum allowable fee, £9,000. The assumption that the economics of consumer goods would apply to the products delivered by universities turned out to be wrong, as it had been elsewhere. The recent rise in unconditional offers – akin to New Zealand’s bums-on-seats revolution after 2001 – should not be a surprise.

For all the planning projects and administrative exercises, one of the central failures of university administrations in England over the last decade has been their inability to manage risk adequately in the new environment. Tying universities to the economic cycle means that there will be both booms and busts. Through issuing debt, undertaking large capital projects, opening overseas campuses, and developing expensive management structures – otherwise known as a spending spree – they have dramatically increased universities’ exposure to the current crisis. It was not understood by university managers in England through the 2010s just how inappropriate the Coalition’s model for universities was, nor how short-lived the new arrangements were likely to be. There have not been sufficient efforts to shield institutions from the impact of downturns in the economic cycle or changes to the government’s whims. Those attempts would merely have been a brake on possible growth. We are now coming to see the damage that has been done by seeking to incorporate the new model into the heart of each university.

It is likely that in the next several years we will see in England what is known as universities’ ‘market exit’. Former Universities Minister Jo Johnson wrote in the 2016 white paper, Success as a Knowledge Economy:

We need to confront the possibility of some institutions choosing – or needing – to exit the market. This is a crucial part of a healthy, competitive and well-functioning market, and such exits happen already – although not frequently – in the higher education sector. The Government should not prevent exit as a matter of policy.

The New Zealand model tells us what the future holds. There will be pressure to implement more granular cost-accounting within institutions, and perhaps changes to the single-honours system that still dominates English universities. (If students are locked into courses, how can competition flourish?) Permanent academic staff will be made redundant, while courses that have higher than expected student numbers will be taught by contingent faculty. There will be mass layoffs – and then mass rehiring of adjuncts and sessional staff, once course numbers have been finalised. The crisis will lead administrators to attempt to shape the university even more like the external market, with a greater focus than ever before on recruitment, development and capturing grants. This is the all-administrative university, where management spends money to hire managers to convert academic salaries into hourly-paid teaching salaries, and, then in turn, to hire more managers.

In many New Zealand universities, which have had three decades to adjust to the new commercial realities, the income lost over the last year has led to further budget problems. Strategies for balancing the books have included voluntary and compulsory redundancies, four-day working weeks, pay cuts, and a process by which staff agree to forego some pay. But how much further can a department shrink? At what point is there no longer a university left? There has been no end to boom and bust cycles. Instead, there has been a series of unforeseeable crises, the cost of which has been borne by faculty and students.

Against its straitened circumstances, the College of Arts at Canterbury has withstood the most recent crisis. Student numbers are increasing, syllabi are rebalancing, and the redundancies have stopped. Stability is leading to regeneration, and morale is on the rise. Canterbury is a university that has a better sense of what it is about and who it serves. Amid the chaos elsewhere, there is cause for hope. Perhaps there is a lesson in all this: departments and colleges do well when they are left alone.


Last year, I presented a version of this article at a seminar at a British university. Among the usual run of questions, I received significant pushback from some faculty. Why did I insist on denigrating the labour that activist-scholars had been undertaking for decades to make teaching and scholarship more just? Why was I nostalgic for Milton?

In the strange intimacy of an online seminar, we see into peoples’ lives. I looked around the others on the call. Young faces looked back at me from cramped bedrooms and kitchens, older faces from book-lined studies. The new cost basis for universities asks contingent faculty to accept being paid less, and with little security, to undertake the work that they love. It amounts to a profound loss of human potential, one that ultimately makes such questions feel like they describe circumstances that are no longer our own. What was being heard in my piece was a tone of complaint – about the end of a certain kind of life, the loss of a public good – and an upset about the human cost of the changes that have taken place.

Many of us remain too attached to the academic disputes of the last few decades, where we’ve sought liberation in the text, the curriculum, the seminar room, the monograph. That is not our battleground today. The academic careers of too many of my junior colleagues have been coming to an end over the last year. They’re now free to study whatever they want.


Image: Cyclists outside Canterbury College, Christchurch (ca. 1880). Foxley Norris album. Ref: PA1-q-094-106. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22878065

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  1. If universities are to function like the ‘external market’ then all they have to do is wait for the next economic collapse and they’ll be bailed out by the government, via the taxpayers of course, along with the never ending burning and slashing of welfare and health services.
    Higher education should be a right, not a privilege.

  2. All great stuff, despite most of it going over my head like a new ball on a springtime greentop. Wouldn’t mind seeing you get on the front foot earlier and, if I could dare say, with more panache. Preferably through either long on, the elegant drive, or, through covers, the gentleman’s drive.

  3. Hi, i am just writing to let the author know there is a typo in the last sentence of the first paragraph in section three of their article: “I realised that I [had(?)] not written about a single line of poetry in any of my undergraduate essays.” It sad to hear about the poesy, but can i ask what was meant by the last line (they are now free to study whatever they want)in your article?

  4. I may be wrong but am sure V.Woolf was scathing of the university as it existed in her time.

    • I am sure you are right. Woolf certainly was scathing of the university, and of a certain species of academic. Her essay on “Dr. Bentley” is a very fine example of this, and of her incredible wit.

  5. Andrew Dean’s analysis of the destructive effect of Government policies upon our universities, and upon the Humanities in particular, is painfully accurate; but further contributing to the process of decline has been the introduction of separate research funding through the competitive PBRF. Based on an inappropriate science model in which journal articles are more important than books, the PBRF seeks to maximise annual research “outputs”. Funding is awarded to individual scholars, but substantially top-sliced by universities for whom this provides a vital source of discretionary funding. As a result, academic staff have been encouraged to think of research and publication as their primary function, while teaching and regular contact with students has become an irksome additional duty. Understandably, many staff try to restrict teaching to their own areas of research, with further damaging effects on the curriculum; while the need to keep at home and write has turned once bustling departments into sets of empty corridors, punctuated by locked doors. This is not how places of learning are supposed to be.

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