Issue Brief

The Transformation of a New Zealand Polytechnic into a University of Technology

Andrew Codling, Director Planning
Barbara O'Connor, Academic Development Manager
UNITEC Institute of Technology
Auckland, New Zealand

Issue Focus
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.

Issue Background
This issue exists against a backdrop of legislative reform in New Zealand which has created an education environment of increased autonomy and accountability for post-secondary institutions within an economic environment which is highly competitive, market driven, and based on a "user pays" philosophy. Costs are being driven down (through much needed efficiency and productivity gains), government funding per equivalent full-time student (EFTS) is decreasing, and students are progressively paying a larger contribution to the cost of their tertiary study. In this environment, polytechnics and universities are frequently competing for the same students.

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
There are a number of reasons why some New Zealand tertiary institutions may seek university status. These can be summarised as follows:

  1. The world is developing rapidly as a information based society in which the quantum of knowledge needed for society's progress is constantly increasing. As a consequence, students of tertiary institutions need to have enhanced critical thinking abilities. There is, therefore, a certain inevitability that institutions such as UNITEC will need to reflect and respond to this trend by offering higher levels of learning through programmes at the undergraduate and postgraduate degree level. Redesignation as a university then becomes an appropriate and essential consequence of this trend.
  2. Through the granting of university status, an institution can ensure that its diplomas and degrees, and the graduates with these qualifications, obtain the recognition and credibility they deserve, particularly internationally.
  3. Recognition as a university will assist an institution to recruit and retain top quality teaching and research staff.
  4. University status will improve access to funding, especially with respect to research grants and the funding of post graduate programmes in high cost categories.
  5. As a university, an institution will have a stronger appeal as a destination for international students.
  6. There is arguably a need for a new sort of university in New Zealand, one that offers a holistic approach to vocational and professional tertiary education at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and focuses on applied research.
  7. There has been a progressive raising of the minimum qualifications required by employers for most occupations. To keep pace with this trend, tertiary institutions need to raise the level of their own qualifications. Ultimately, larger institutions will be offering the full range of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes of a university, and should be renamed accordingly.
Key Considerations and Implications
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:
  • they are primarily concerned with more advanced learning, the principal aim being to develop intellectual independence;
  • their research and teaching are closely interdependent and most of
  • their teaching is done by people who are active in advancing knowledge;
  • they meet international standards of research and teaching;
  • they are a repository of knowledge and expertise;
  • they accept a role as critic and conscience of society; and generally that universities have:
  • a wide diversity of teaching and research especially at a higher level that maintains, advances, disseminates and assists the application of knowledge, develops intellectual independence and promotes community learning.

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.

Staff Qualifications
There is an inevitable need to upgrade staff academic qualifications. This can be done by encouraging existing staff to undertake further study ("growing your own") and/or by employing new staff with higher qualifications ("buying in").

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.

Moving from a history of virtually no research activity to a level of research appropriate to a university is a huge issue for an institution. NZQA approval and accreditation to offer degrees carries with it some clear research requirements for staff teaching in these degree programmes. However, far more than an external accreditation requirement is necessary to create a research culture which fosters and promotes research within the institution. Also, the extent to which a polytechnic which aspires to university status should attempt to preserve its vocational roots by a focus on "applied" rather than "pure" research is one that such institutions need to grapple with.

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.

Postgraduate Degrees
To be recognised as a credible university in the international higher education community arguably requires a range of postgraduate programmes (at masters and doctoral levels?) and a critical mass of postgraduate students. It is the latter which provide the foundation on which the research culture of the institution is built.

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.

Organisation Culture
Central to many of the issues outlined above is the need for a institution to shift its organisation culture towards one that is more overtly academic in nature if it is to aspire to university status. This is not a straightforward matter, and it is further complicated by the current need for tertiary institutions to adopt a more "business like" approach to the management of their organisations to reflect the current economic realities in New Zealand outlined above. UNITEC, in particular, has developed a strong business management culture which some would argue mitigates against the academic autonomy and collegiality regarded as essential in a university environment.

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.

All material within the HORIZON site, unless otherwise noted, may be distributed freely for educational purposes. If you do redistribute any of this material, it must retain this copyright notice and you must use appropriate citation including the URL. Also, we would appreciate your sending James L. Morrison a note as to how you are using it. HTML and design by Noel Fiser, ©2006. Page last modified: 3/4/1999 12:15:53 PM. 21583 visitors since February 2000.