Andrew Codling, Director Planning
Barbara O'Connor, Academic Development Manager
UNITEC Institute of Technology
Auckland, New Zealand
In its vision statement of 1993, UNITEC Institute of Technology signaled its intention to work towards redesignation as a university of technology, a "new type of university". In 1995 this vision was reviewed and reconfirmed, with the development of a specific strategic initiative to achieve university of technology status by the year 2000. Since that time, Auckland Institute of Technology (AIT) has applied for university status, and, in light of that development, UNITEC is currently preparing its own application.
The issue for discussion focuses on the organisational change and transformation that a institution such as UNITEC needs to undergo to become a university, and be recognised as such. It does not specifically focus on the validity of this course of action in the wider New Zealand tertiary education environment.
Polytechnics share the same legislation as universities in New Zealand. This legislation does not restrict them from doing anything (in broad terms) that a university can do, other than use the name "university". Many polytechnics therefore offer degrees at undergraduate level, and the first postgraduate polytechnic degrees are underway at three polytechnics. However, there remains a significant perception gap in the public arena which separates universities and polytechnics into first and second class institutions respectively, based on name rather than on performance. This creates a significant competitive advantage for the university sector. If a polytechnic meets the definition of a university laid down in the legislation, it can therefore be argued that no unreasonable external barrier should be erected to prevent that polytechnic from achieving university status. The critical hurdles for the aspiring institution, then, should be those within the institution that relate to meeting the characteristics of a university, and creating the organisational environment to achieve this objective.
Forces Driving the Issue
The legislated definition of a university in New Zealand is contained in the Education Amendment Act 1990. According to this act, universities have the following characteristics:
To meet this definition, an institution such as a New Zealand polytechnic has to undergo a very significant transformation which inevitably has a profound effect on its organisational culture and strategic priorities.
Some of the key issues in this regard are as follows.
A policy of "growing your own" involves a considerable resource drain on the institution in terms of direct financial support to individual staff, and indirect cost in terms of time and staff personal priority. It also has a long lead time. However, institutional support for staff to upgrade their qualifications is believed to have a net positive influence on staff morale.
"Buying in" new staff with higher qualifications has the benefit of immediacy, but it also has possible problems for existing staff who may see their seniority in the institution diminished. Further, institutions will need to critically review traditional career development paths for academic staff and challenge the current paradigm for academic progression in higher education. Whatever approach to raising staff qualifications is taken, there is an inevitable further long term cost implication of an increased salaries bill for a better qualified staff that will reflect market forces and minimise staff loss.
Resourcing research is a critical factor. Research requires both staff time (which translates into a financial cost) and other direct costs for facilities. However, it remains very difficult for an institution to break into existing research funding avenues without an adequate history of relevant research, yet this research cannot take place easily without this funding.
Once again, an institution with a history of applied and vocational sub degree qualifications will find the establishment of worthwhile postgraduate activity requires a significant cultural change. In this respect there are issues related to whether postgraduate programmes should be developed in addition to vocational certificates and diplomas or as a substitute for them, with the consequential problems of relative staff status and possible redundancies.
On a more philosophical note is the issue of whether postgraduate study and skills based vocational education can coexist to the benefit of each in an institution, or whether, in fact, they are incompatible.
Achieving an appropriate academic culture without sacrificing an essential business focus is probably the central challenge to the transformation of an institution from a polytechnic to a university.
The issues outlined in this brief complement those of the issue brief "Survival of Traditional Institutions of Higher Education" prepared by Richard Froeschle and Marc Anderberg. In essence both papers addresses many of the same issues, but approach them from different directions. The Froeschle and Anderberg brief neatly outlines the need for traditional higher education institutions to become more innovative and business-like, for reasons of survival. By contrast, this brief looks at the need for an already business focused institution to incorporate more traditional academic "university" values into its culture if it wishes to be recognised as a university. This too is potentially a survival matter.
The result of both transformations is essentially the same: an innovative, forward thinking higher education institution with strong "traditional" academic values, entrepreneurial business management practices and an essential customer focus.
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