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The Great Fee Debate PT1: Domestic Tution Fees, a Vice-Chancellor’s Perspective

Pat Walsh



SALIENT is bringing you a series of differing perspectives on the fees debate, leading up to the yearly fee-setting meeting in mid-September. This week, Vice-Chancellor Pat Walsh and Students’ Association President Nick Kelly bring you the contrasting views of the student and the administration.
In an ideal world, undergraduate students would not be charged tuition fees. Sadly our world is not ideal in many respects, including university funding, and for the last decade or so, universities have been compelled to charge tuition fees to all domestic students.
Were Vice-Chancellors to be politicians and decide the level and terms of Government investment in universities, we would certainly have less need for student fees. Despite our best efforts and those of our Chancellors to lobby Government and its advisers intensively for additional funding, we remain severely restricted in our ability to pay our academic staff the internationally competitive salaries they deserve, limited in our capacity to purchase top-class equipment and resources, and struggling to fund the major capital developments necessary to accommodate the natural growth in demand for university education, not least of which is the need for quality student accommodation and services. The Government increases its annual funding below the level of university inflation, which not only is influenced by CPI, increases in insurance and energy charges, but by exchange rate fluctuations and international price rises affecting library resources and equipment. While we have focused on increasing the level of research revenue, against a backdrop of declining Government investment in real terms, we have had no choice but to seek revenue from students in the form of fees, and at an increased rate.
Lobbying can be very effective, particularly in election year, as the campaign to remove interest on student loans demonstrates. It shows that there is always room to negotiate and I would urge students to take their concerns about student fees where it belongs—to the Government. The University needs to obtain sufficient revenue to operate. It is not an option to make a loss. The Government requires us to make a modest surplus, that is, have sufficient savings from year to year to reinvest in our capital works such as library collections, buildings, IT and equipment. There is no other source of funding for these vitally important resources.
The level of fees increases proposed in 2007 will need to address the issue of the under-resourcing in our humanities & social sciences and education programmes. Due to the rules around Government policies during the past decade, we have been locked in to rates that are not sustainable if we are to achieve our aspiration to be in the top two research-led universities in New Zealand. Without sufficient revenue, including from student fees income, we risk falling behind others in quality. We need to set our student fees at a level that enables us to sustain quality. If Victoria University were to charge students the same amount as other universities do for these programmes, our overall revenue would increase by several millions of dollars. Clearly universities with greater resources can invest more in student learning facilities and support services.
The forum held two weeks ago to discuss domestic tuition fees was not well attended, but it was heartening to be able to engage with students on the issues. As raised at that forum, there is certainly scope for a more unified approach with the NZUSA and the NZ Vice-Chancellors’ Committee in terms of lobbying. Generating widespread community support for alternatives to student fees is the only approach likely to be successful.
It was very pleasing to engage in the Tripartite Forum with the Government, staff unions and Vice-Chancellors, and it has had a partially successful outcome in the form of new funding for University salaries, with potential for further investment by the Government. If we can achieve the same outcomes for students by working together, that would be something well-worth doing. After all, we are all members of the Victoria University of Wellington community. There is no joy in a situation where we are in conflict and I look forward to working with student representatives on developing further these proposals.
Pat Walsh