Information Technologies and Tertiary Education in New Zealand by Peter Roberts
First Monday

Information Technologies and Tertiary Education in New Zealand by Peter Roberts

This article considers the extent to which, and ways in which, information technology issues have been addressed in recent tertiary education policy documents in New Zealand. By comparison with other reviews of tertiary education - notably the Dearing Report in the United Kingdom - these documents have little of substance to say about such issues. It is possible to speculate, nonetheless, about what might happen should current trends in the reform of tertiary education continue. It is argued that changes in the tertiary education sector need to be seen as one part of a wider process of neoliberal social transformation. Building upon some prophetic comments from Jean-François Lyotard on the changing role of the state in postmodern societies, the paper discusses three key features of New Zealand's tertiary education environment: the decline in institutional authority, the heavy emphasis on skills, and the emergence of new forms of control over educational subjects. A brief assessment of future prospects for education in a social world combining neoliberal individualism with the latest developments in information technology is offered.



Tertiary Education Under Review
Neoliberalism and Tertiary Education in the Information Age
Concluding Comments


Tertiary education, never far from news headlines in many countries of the Western world, has recently been the focus of renewed attention in a number of OECD nations. Governments in the United Kingdom (Dearing, 1997), Australia (West, 1997) and New Zealand (Ministry of Education, 1997a) have over the past year and a half all undertaken significant reviews of their tertiary education systems. All have recognised the importance of post-compulsory education for economic growth and development. The cultural and social benefits of further and higher education have also been acknowledged (though only the Dearing Report pays substantial attention to this issue). In each case, government officials associated with the review process have stressed, as they almost always do, that financial resources for expansion in the tertiary sector are strictly limited. Money for further and higher education is, it seems, in perpetually short supply. On the one hand, governments are keen, for a variety of reasons (including the desire to lower unemployment statistics), to increase participation rates in tertiary education. On the other hand, any new developments in the sector are expected to proceed in a climate of continuing fiscal constraint [1].

In contemplating how both imperatives might be met, higher education authorities have increasingly turned to the new information technologies as a means of enhancing participation while reducing costs. This 'turn to technology' is not, however, merely a money-saving exercise. It reflects and perpetuates deep changes in the nature of the knowledge, the concept of education, and the role of the state in postmodern societies. Some countries have been quicker to recognise these changes than others. This paper assesses the extent to which, and the ways in which, possibilities for new systems of learning via computer-based technologies have been identified and discussed in recent education policy statements in New Zealand. The key document for those concerned with higher education in New Zealand - the tertiary education review green paper (Ministry of Education, 1997a) - has virtually nothing to say about the new information technologies. This stands in marked contrast to the Dearing Report, which deals with these issues at length in developing a detailed vision of 'the learning society'. We situate what has been said about the new technologies within the wider framework of neoliberal social policy change in New Zealand, and analyse the latest phase in the reform process in the light of prophetic comments from Jean François Lyotard on the changing role of the state in postmodern societies.


Tertiary Education Under Review

When the National-New Zealand First coalition government came to power in New Zealand at the end of 1996, an undertaking was made to conduct a comprehensive review of tertiary education. This followed earlier reviews of the tertiary sector by the Labour government (Department of Education, 1989a, 1989b), in which the university sector had been given a major 'shakeup' (Butterworth and Tarling, 1994), ostensibly with a view to enhancing opportunities for wider participation in lifelong education. Changes in tertiary education were, in turn, built on a platform - laid by both the Labour government of 1984-1990 and the National government of 1990-1996 - of market liberalism, some of key elements of which included the sale of state assets, the removal of tarrifs and subsidies, a decline in welfare spending, and the emergence of 'user pays' schemes for social services. The shift to 'the market' as the model on which to base all human activity has been premised on a neoliberal philosophy, at the centre of which is the rational, utility-maximising, consuming, choosing, competitive individual. Older notions of community and cooperation, developed in a country once regarded as the 'welfare laboratory of the world', have all but disappeared from the policy making process. The release of a green paper on tertiary education in September 1997 (Ministry of Education, 1997a) was preceded by the publication of two other important documents: a green paper on qualifications policy (Ministry of Education, 1997b). [2] and an earlier version of the tertiary education review document leaked to the media (Ministry of Education, 1997c). A further green paper - on teacher education (Ministry of Education, 1997d) - followed in October 1997.


In the tertiary education review green paper (Ministry of Education, 1997a), discussion of information technology issues is limited to a few short statements. In his Foreword to the document, Minister of Education Wyatt Creech claims:

...[T]he development of information technology will greatly extend the range of learning opportunities for all New Zealanders. This will break down the barriers of time and location which historically have prevented people from learning. It will change how learning occurs as well as when it occurs (Creech, 1997a, p.3).

A few pages later, under the heading 'Goals for Tertiary Education', the green paper states:

Information technology, in particular the growth of the Internet, will continue to provide new and diverse forms of education delivery. This is likely to introduce a new range of providers - including international ones - for students to choose from, and so reduce the costs of tertiary provision (Ministry of Education, 1997a, p.8).

Apart from one other brief reference to information technologies and the internationalisation of the tertiary sector (p.68), this is all the green paper has to say on the issue.

While the green paper on qualifications policy does not (and indeed could not reasonably have been expected to) deal with information technology issues in any detail, there are some interesting references to building up databases of information - to be made available through the KiwiCareers Web page - on agreements for credit transfer between different institutions (Ministry of Education, 1997b, p.22). This idea is advanced in the context of a push for greater portability in the qualifications arena. This demands a form of 'common currency' such that parts of qualifications - outcomes, level and credit - might be traded and transferred with ease. Developments in computers and networking are seen as important aids in this process.

Information technology figures rather more prominently in the green paper on teacher education (Ministry of Education, 1997d), published some weeks after the tertiary education review green paper. In his Foreword to the teacher education document, Wyatt Creech claims that teachers will need to be able to respond to 'advances in technology and consequent changes in the mix of skills valued in the wider world of employment' if they are to become 'proficient managers of change' (Creech, 1997b, p.3). Creech observes:

Schools of the future will need to be increasingly responsive to the needs of individual students and local communities. Information technologies, including distance learning, with the capability of supporting individualised learning programmes, will have a major impact on the structure and management of classrooms in the future. To meet the demands of change, the organisation of schools, classes, teachers and the school day will need to become more flexible and diverse, with individual students accessing programmes of study in a number of different ways (Creech, 1997b, p.3).

The document, in tandem with many other policy statements from the New Zealand government - and particularly the Ministry of Education - in recent years, makes much of the fact that we live in a 'rapidly changing world'. In this case, however, more attention is paid to the role of information and communication technologies in the process of change. The new technologies, the green paper claims, have led to 'fundamental and irrevocable' changes in the world of work: '[h]igh value is now placed on flexibility, innovation and adaptation to change, rather than the acquisition of one static set of skills and knowledge'. This, it is believed, will necessarily have an impact on the nature of teaching and learning. The green paper continues:

While the traditional objectives of mass education - basic literacy, numeracy and fact-based knowledge - remain essential, the method of achieving these objectives has changed. Students are now more able to access and process information for themselves, and to communicate widely. In this way, information and communications networked tools provide greater opportunities for students to engage in self-directed learning (Ministry of Education, 1997d, p.20).

The need for all teachers to obtain an understanding of (and actively work with) the new technologies is seen as paramount. Advances in this area are, it is claimed, 'changing the nature, practice and philosophies of teaching and learning' (p.31). The green paper speaks of information and communication technologies providing 'alternative routes to knowledge, directly challenging the traditional role of teachers as conveyers of knowledge'. Retaining existing approaches to the organisation of learning 'simply delays the inevitable' (p.20). Extending the tone of urgency, the green paper proposes that in addition to the functional competencies already specified in the unit standards for pre-service teacher education developed by the Teacher Education Advisory Group, trainees should 'acquire skills in the uses of information technology for aiding the teaching and learning process'. Ideally, functional competence in this (new) area should be 'practised and developed during the practicum as well as through the provider-based programmes' (p.31).


Neoliberalism and Tertiary Education in the Information Age

By comparison with major policy documents on higher education in other countries - particularly the Dearing Report - New Zealand's tertiary education review green paper is positively emaciated. It is thin on detail in almost every area of tertiary education policy, having very little to say about teaching practices, the process of research, the nature and purpose of a university, the role of the humanities, and so on. The Dearing Report, at over 1700 pages in length, gives all of these areas - and the question of what role the new information technologies might play in universities of the future - the attention they deserve in a major review of tertiary education.

The tertiary education review green paper is driven, more than anything else, by questions about money. In essence, the government wishes to extract what it sees as better value (both in dollar and 'quality' terms) from the education budget, and - consistent with other reforms over the past 13 years - believes the market provides the best model for this. Given this overriding concern, however, the neglect of information technology issues appears to be an error in judgement. Developments in 'virtual' teaching and learning technologies at the tertiary level have, as we noted in our introductory comments, been seen by some as the saviour of an ailing system. The new information technologies, many believe, have arrived at precisely the right time to enhance access to higher education, improve scholarly communication, allow innovative teaching to flourish, and (of greatest importance for bureaucrats and politicians) rescue the universities from their desperate financial plight.


It is important to contextualise these potential developments. The information age ushers in changes in the role of state and the emergence of new (sometimes uneasy or even contradictory) alliances of power. Among other defining features, this moment witnesses a diffusion of social responsibilities into the private (or philanthropic) sphere and an apparent reduction in the regulatory life of bureaucracies and institutions of all kinds. Accompanying these trends, however, is the need (desire) for greater control over individual subjects who negotiate the fresh pathways of competitive consumption in a computerised world. This process has been accelerated in the past decade as computers have become more sophisticated and widespread within the realms of commerce, education and the home. Its origins lie, however, in the shift from mechanical and electrical technological systems to new language-based technologies. This shift has prompted a change in the status of knowledge: information has become a (increasingly the) major medium of exchange. Knowledge and learning have become commodities, with information being the chief currency through which participants buy, sell and trade in the educational domain (Lyotard, 1984, 1993).

This is not merely an epistemological transformation - a change in ways of knowing, understanding or interpreting the world - but a fundamental shift in the nature of economic, social and cultural life. The still-evolving reality of late (postmodern) capitalism precipitates new roles for all "players" in the social system. Individuals find themselves renegotiating their conditions of work (or facing unemployment); educational institutions scramble to meet new demands linked to the language of "performativity"; and (many) families struggle to cope as "flexible" working hours, un(der)employment and lower real wages bite into already strained household budgets. The state, too, must reconfigure its place within the new order. In an essay on the new technologies first published in 1982 (and later included in his Political Writings), Lyotard observes:

As for state control, the technologies of language touch its domain in regard to all aspects of its responsibility for the Idea of being-together: the multiplication of organizations for management and administration (ministers, agencies, missions); the constitution of memories (files, archives, etc.); the relationship to the new media; and so forth. The important fact is this: in handling language, the new technologies directly handle the social bond, being-together. They make it more independent of traditional regulation by institutions, and more directly affected by knowledge, technology, and the marketplace (Lyotard, 1993, p.17).

Several trends in the reconstruction of New Zealand's social sphere mirror developments signalled in Lyotard's insightful comments.

First, challenges to the regulatory authority of institutions are now commonplace. Students, employers, government ministers, and parents are increasingly asserting the right to question the quality of university programmes. One memorable case in 1997 involved a group of students who believed the course they encountered at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, did not measure up to an acceptable standard. The fact that student grievances were expressed via the threat of legal action, rather than through internal university procedures (alone), was seen by many as an important precedent in the new "contractual" environment for university teaching.

For neoliberals the teacher-student relation is contractual rather than pedagogical (Codd, 1995). On this model, students pay fees in exchange for the delivery of an educational service and/or product. The product in this case is the sum of knowledge, drawn from specialist expertise which must be purchased given its scarcity, and encapsulated in the course programme. The service is the delivery ("teaching" is the old-fashioned word for this) of course content - including not just lectures, tutorials and the like, but also the provision of reading materials, the setting of assessment tasks, systems for student consultation and feedback, and so on. In making purchasing decisions of this kind (i.e. in enrolling in a particular course of study), students are presumed to be making rational, self-interested choices about the "market value" of specific programmes. Institutions compete in the educational marketplace for student dollars. Students are free to decide which "providers" offer the best courses and qualifications. In making consumer-style choices among competing alternatives, students believe - following conventional commercial practice - they have a right to know what they are purchasing and to demand redress if the promised goods and/or services are not delivered.

In the tertiary education environment of the late 1990s there is a heavy emphasis on meeting the 'needs' of 'consumers' [3]. In practice, this stance undermines the authority teachers, university lecturers and other education professionals used to have over matters of educational standards and quality. While acknowledging that the process of making judgements about the worth of qualifications is a complex one, the New Zealand Ministry of Education offers a strikingly simplistic and highly problematic (re)definition of quality. Confident the international standing of New Zealand's qualifications will be assured and enhanced through the setting of minimum standards under a National Qualifications Framework, the Ministry states:

"Quality" in this context has three attributes: qualifications need to be seen as credible by their users, particularly students and employers; they need provide [sic] flexible pathways for students; and their structure needs to be educationally sound (Ministry of Education, 1997b, p.17).


To some extent this transformation in the concept of quality reflects a wider move, in New Zealand and elsewhere, to (supposedly) 'student-centred' curricula and systems of learning. The universities, more than any other institutions in the tertiary sector, have often been singled out as lacking in their attention to student 'needs'. Traces of this line of thinking can be detected in numerous statements by business leaders, politicians, bureaucrats, and newspaper commentators on university teaching. The following passage from a recent OECD report on tertiary education in New Zealand encapsulates some of the concerns commonly expressed. Arguing that a strong research culture ought not to override the importance of undergraduate teaching in universities, the authors of the report call for deeper contemplation on:

... the fundamentals of student learning; the kinds of things undergraduates need to know and be able to do as citizens, economic actors and individuals (as distinct, for example, from the latest trend or fashion in conceptions of the subject); the relationships among the different subjects or topics students are studying both horizontally and vertically; contemporary and likely future uses and applications of what is being learned; and the conditions in which learning is occurring (OECD, 1997, p.29).

On the basis of their observations, the OECD in vestigators conclude that neither the universities themselves nor the quality assurance procedures in the New Zealand tertiary education system allow sufficient attention to be paid to this 'broad repertoire of student-centred needs' (p.29). Later in the report it is noted that improvements in quality - 'an appropriate goal' - ought to be 'geared to client needs and expectations' (p.37). For the OECD evaluators, the primary 'client' in tertiary transactions is the student, but the 'needs' of other groups - e.g. employers - also need to be taken into account. While drawing attention to a number of problematic elements of the reform process in New Zealand, the OECD reviewers nonetheless express broad support for a 'demand (or consumer) driven' system of education.

The language of skills, evident in all of the green papers discussed above but particularly prominent in the document on teacher education, mirrors trends set in earlier education policy statements. 'Upskilling' the population has been seen as a key goal for educational reform at all levels of the system. The New Zealand Curriculum Framework (Ministry of Education, 1993) - the document on which all subsequent school curricula have been based - is saturated with talk of 'skills'. Learning is understood in terms of eight groupings of 'essential skills': communication skills, numeracy skills, information skills, problem-solving skills, self-management and competitive skills, social and cooperative skills, physical skills, and work and study skills. At the tertiary level, the industry training strategy has been built on the assumption that education ought to be more closely tied to the development of skills necessary for effective employment. The idea has been to 'skill New Zealand' (Education and Training Support Agency, 1993): to build a nation of lifelong learners, committed to the concept and practice of perpetual training - which Deleuze (1992) predicted would, in time, tend to replace the 'school' as the dominant feature of educational life in Western societies - in order to stay competitive in a rapidly changing world.

The rhetoric of upskilling and perpetual training finds renewed emphasis in the green paper on teacher education, where it is argued that teachers will need to maintain 'a deep and flexible understanding of the subject they teach' if they are to meet individualised student learning needs (increasingly built on a platform of on-line access to information). 'In this context', the Ministry notes, 'the ability of teachers to manage their own career-long learning is the key'. (Ministry of Education, 1997d, p.20). Both pre-service and in-service teacher education programmes are seen as important in meeting this objective, the former (in degree or degree-equivalent form) providing confirmation of a teacher's 'cognitive ability' to do the job well, the latter servicing ongoing professional development requirements for those committed to high quality teaching. It is envisaged that the Internet might provide an effective way of linking schools - particularly in remote and rural areas - for in-service education.

Neoliberal political thought suggests there should be a 'thinning' of the state, with minimal government intervention, in order to allow rational, self-interested individuals to make independent decisions in the marketplace. (The 'marketplace' here is multifaceted, and includes domains such as education and health as well as the commercial sphere.) If the theory works well in practice, individuals should prosper or perish on the basis of their own efforts - the state having interfered only in the sense of setting (and where necessary reinforcing) the rules for the competition. The New Zealand experience has shown that while some 'withering' of the state has occurred - with, for example, the sale of state assets and cuts to welfare - there has also been a strengthening of bureaucratic power in strategic areas (e.g. in economic forecasting, social policy formulation, the control of qualifications, etc.). In the educational arena, the past decade has witnessed the removal of some important buffering policy bodies - notably, the old education boards and the University Grants Committee. The key financial planning wing of government - the Treasury - has, by contrast, enjoyed healthy staffing levels, with generous salaries, conditions and bonuses for its employees (Young, 1997, p.A5) and considerable latitude for 'getting it wrong' (frequently, in economic predictions) without fear of sackings.

The development of new "memory" systems, another feature of the postmodern moment identified by Lyotard, is also in full swing in New Zealand. In recent years extensive archives of information about individuals have been assembled in government departments and commercial organisations. Computerisation has allowed systems of information storage, retrieval and transmission to become more sophisticated, efficient and widespread. The practice of "information sharing" between different bureaucratic wings of the state apparatus has become official government policy. The boundary between the state and the business world has become increasingly blurred in this process. A classic example of the intertwining of the two spheres was provided some years ago when banks "encouraged" their customers to give over their Inland Revenue Department numbers in exchange for a lower withholding tax rate. These developments have raised new concerns about surveillance and the regulation of citizens in an information economy. Such concerns also apply to changes in the education sector. As Fitzsimons (1996) has argued, the reforms in qualifications policies can, when seen in the light of simultaneous advances in computing and networking, be regarded as steps along the way to an invasive monitoring of educational subjects. Reconceived as 'revenue generating units', students can be shaped and governed by a system which - in the name of openness and flexibility - tracks their every move as they complete successive qualifications in their quest for lifelong learning.


Concluding Comments

What are we to make of recent changes in tertiary education policy in New Zealand? Given space limitations, it has not been possible to provide anything other than a few preliminary critical comments here. The government is only just beginning to 'wake up' to the potential of the new information technologies for furthering a neoliberal agenda inaugurated more than a decade ago. The almost complete absence of any discussion of information technology issues in the tertiary education review green paper is remedied, to some extent, in the teacher education green paper. We do well, however, to examine these documents (and others) in the context of wider changes in social and educational policy. Talk by the Ministry of Education of enhancing learning and training through flexible delivery systems using information and communication technologies can, on one level, be seen as a somewhat belated but important recognition of changing global realities. The promotion of a lifelong learning system, in which networked computers will obviously play an important role, is to be applauded. Similarly, the development of comprehensive databases on different qualifications can assist students in gaining the necessary information for making sound educational decisions.

These positive features must, however, be balanced with a sober examination of the potential dangers attending a synthesis of neoliberal social reform and the new information technologies. Unless academics, students and other interested groups can mobilise effectively to resist the tide of recent changes, further privatisation of the tertiary education sector in New Zealand seems inevitable. This will involve a complex set of relations between the state, students and tertiary education 'providers'. Further steps toward a 'board of directors' style of governance will - if the leaked Ministry of Education (1997c) document is anything to go by - almost certainly be put in place in New Zealand universities. It is clear that the traditional composition of university councils is under threat. Universities, like almost all other organisations in a neoliberal policy environment, will increasingly be expected to operate like businesses and follow the rules of the market. On the one hand, privatisation will be actively encouraged: declining state support for public institutions of higher education (and particularly universities) will see to this, even if the rhetoric is to the contrary. On the other hand, regulation of any remaining public institutions will - despite some appearances to the contrary - be tightened. The tertiary education review green paper is, in Bryan's Gould's words, characterised by 'an unattractive combination of market pressures and government control' (1997, p.9).

This awkward synthesis, when viewed alongside the parallel development of 'virtual' universities (making maximum use of the new information technologies) will change the face of tertiary education in dramatic and hitherto unseen ways. The new information technologies have the potential, as the green papers in the New Zealand tertiary education reform process have noted (to varying degrees), to liberate many teachers and learners from the tyrannies of time and distance. The withdrawl of the state from people's lives could furnish new freedoms and foster modes of intellectual independence commensurate with the bold and adventurous technological spirit of our times. Further computerisation may also provide the means for more sophisticated and oppressive forms of state regulation - through continous monitoring of the movements and thoughts of citizens - while at the same time reducing tertiary education to nothing more than a contractual exchange between self-interested consumers and 'providers' in a competitive marketplace. The New Zealand government's slow response to changes already well underway elsewhere provides some hope that there may still be time to realise the more positive vision of a tertiary education future: one in which the new information technologies are dynamically integrated with critical, democratic and innovative traditions in teaching, learning and research. end of article


About the Authors

Peter Roberts and Michael Peters both work in the School of Education at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.




1. In New Zealand, there is no accepted or consistent distinction between 'higher' and 'further' education. 'Tertiary education' includes teaching and learning in universities, polytechnics, colleges of education (teachers' colleges), and - more recently - private training establishments.

2. Page numbers quoted from the green paper on qualifications policy are from a print-out of the Internet version of the document.

3. The use of the term 'consumer' instead of 'student', once confined to Treasury and a few other government departments, is now not uncommon among school teachers and other educationists. This change in the language of everyday life needs to be continously problematised.



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Copyright © 1998, ƒ ¡ ® s † - m ¤ ñ d @ ¥

Information Technologies and Tertiary Education in New Zealand by Peter Roberts.
First Monday, Volume 3, Number 12 - 7 December 1998

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