Category Archives: Events and Opinions

Kia Tōpū – Why?

One thing that is puzzling me about Kia Tōpū is – why? What is the strategic objective here? Why have a unifying theme project like this in the first place? And if we do have such a project then why choose food? Is the objective to be more attractive to students? Or to raise our position in the various rankings? Or to secure more external funding? Or to compete head-to-head with Lincoln and take their space?

The original business case document that was circulated has a short section titled “Strategic Case” where it says:

This section of the business case confirms the strategic context for the investment proposal and makes a compelling case for change. It takes previous options considered and develops the preferred approaches to the opportunities while considering defences to competitive threats.
New Zealand is currently exporting $30 billion in agri-food exports, however by the time they reach offshore markets, they have a retail value of $250 billion. Not only is New Zealand losing this gap in value, opportunities are also being lost to respond to and benefit from significant global food market disruption created by new ways of growing food without the need for land or animals, and distribution approaches which remove the need for intermediaries.
By 2050, the world’s population is forecast to hit 10 billion, and global agricultural production will have to grow by 70% by this time if current production and consumption patterns remain unchanged. In reality, to meet the global demand for food, increasing agricultural yields will not be enough. This population growth means that the percentage of arable land per person is decreasing; currently 3% of the Earth’s surface is arable land (of this 11% used for biofuels, 18% for food and 71% for animal feed) and 7% is for pasture. While these pressures exist, about a third of food produced is lost or wasted.
At the same time, climate change will have a drastic impact on food production. For example, it is predicted that by 2050, 40% of the world’s population will suffer from water shortages.
New Zealand has a role to play in feeding the world, and also needs to address its own issues in environmental and production challenges.
The application of new and existing technologies or business models in innovative ways to the three parts of the food supply chain – the production, processing and distribution of food including drink – can provide both opportunities and threats to New Zealand’s largest export sector.

None of this explains why UC is adopting this project. Are we simply being good global citizens?

The VC’s report to Council in September 2018 states:

Kia Tōpū is a new UC research and teaching initiative that aims to contribute to the global challenge of future food and food security. Over the next five years, UC will invest in research and teaching to help develop Kia Tōpū’s vision for the sustainable production, efficient processing and secure distribution of healthy foods across the themes of Food Equity, Food Intelligence and Food Innovation. These themes underpin the four projects that largely underpin Kia Tōpū’s programme of work: programme development, EFTS growth, the development of a research institute, and an online repository. Research and programme development continued on the realisation of Kia Tōpū delivery, with two representatives from each college on each of the main oversight groups – one related to establishing the research institute and one to develop taught programmes. This multi-year, multi-million-dollar investment in interdisciplinary research and teaching will require UC to develop and apply collaboration skills to leverage the contribution UC can make to the work of other institutions including other universities, CRIs and private sector partners.

However, this is also lacking in strategic objective reasoning.

No-one is questioning that food is an important issue (although the world has more kilojoules for more people than ever before). However, water is an important issue and so is climate change and so is energy security. So why food? What comparative advantage did we have in that area?

And no-one is questioning that universities should use their scarce resources for the greatest benefit. Is this where UC can actually make the biggest difference? There is an opportunity cost to this project – has anyone established what we will NOT now be doing? (i.e. what is the opportunity cost). The business case document is strong on benefits and very weak on costs. All projects have benefits – the question is are those benefits worth the costs.

The project may very well be worthwhile but I don’t know as I can’t see what the strategic objective is  and I can’t see any evidence of weighing costs and benefits. I think knowing those two things would be helpful.

Stephen Hickson.

Have a response?  Want to comment?  Comments are open below.

Brash is not a victim but thinking so could harm academic freedom

Brash stood to benefit by associating his views with Massey University’s name. The University decision to not host him could be seen as a threat to Brash’s brand. He might regain some loss to his brand by questioning the integrity of the University. Massey was of most value to Brash because its name gave him legitimacy by association; now it is of most use to him if its name is worth less than his own. This controversy creates a danger to academic freedom but only if staff and students of the University unwittingly contribute to an agenda that undermines institutional autonomy.

As I write this, Massey University’s Vice Chancellor Dr. Jan Thomas is in the news because of evidence that she lied and sought to manipulate students hosting a political event featuring Dr. Don Brash. If it is true that she tried to mislead and censor, then the matter is rightly subject to the review of the University’s Council. Her ability to perform her duties without the confidence of staff and students1 must be central to the Council’s consideration of the case.

However, I fear that her alleged actions are meanwhile being misunderstood as tacit support for Brash’s outrage at not being hosted on a Massey University campus. In my view, the actions of the University were in no way a reasonable impediment to his right of free speech or the silencing of the academic freedom to which students’ are entitled.
Massey University has no obligation to provide infrastructure for Brash to espouse his views. That infrastructure is expensive. Not only are buildings and real estate costly, but the obligations of public institutions to ensure the safety and well-being of those on campus is also expensive. It would be reasonable for Thomas to take that into consideration.

Brash and his supporters have more than the financial and social means to ensure the expression of their views; Massey is not obligated to be the venue (for him). Indeed, if there is an ethical obligation upon Massey University to be a venue for free speech, it is to use its limited financial resources to provide a venue for the airing of views from those less able than Brash to access New Zealand’s ears.

Separate from the issue of free speech, was the cancelling of his speech an attack on the academic freedom of the students who had invited him? In denying Brash use of Massey facilities, did Thomas use autonomy (the institutional form of academic freedom) “as a pretext to limit the rights of”2 students?

There would be no question that she did if students wishing to express their views on the same topics as Brash were censored, provided that they are acting within the law. But students don’t have the absolute right to use Brash as a surrogate form of expression. It is expected that students are capable of accurately presenting his views and other students are capable of responding to them.

If you view academic freedom and institutional autonomy as rights, then they are elitist and privileged. Perhaps that is what Parliament intended when it uniquely conferred them upon some tertiary institutions. I think instead that Parliament expected our universities through their staff and students to provide a service using these academic freedoms as one of the essential tools provided to the sector. That service requires we staff and students to use our scholarship to identify and responsibly express unpopular and controversial opinions for the benefit of society, pursue teaching and research of high quality unfettered by the interests of those who may be affected by it, and in doing so to associate ourselves with our University’s name. It does not mean dispatching the hard and risky work to someone else on your campus, avoiding the personal and professional costs of the scholar.

Thomas’ decision is consistent with the centrally important role of autonomy to ensure that academic freedom for some does not come at the expense of academic freedom for others. The role of institutional autonomy is to protect the academic freedom of all within the academic community, and from threats outside of it. Using Brash as a surrogate for the presentation of ideas pits staff and students with contrary views against him, a person who does not have to play by the same rules of scholarship and debate and obligation to respect cultures. This is very different to a contest of ideas among equals in the academic community. It would be reasonable for Thomas to avoid putting staff and students in this position.

We must be careful, staff and students of universities, in how we participate in the debate over Thomas’ actions. She has some explaining to do, especially the alleged threat to student body funding. Indeed, hold her to account for any breach of trust or issue of integrity.

But this is a discussion separate from the academic decisions made by Thomas. It is important to keep her alleged failings as chief executive away from any perception that Brash was wronged. Academic freedom and institutional autonomy includes the right to not promote already privileged views in society. Our public universities do not need to provide free advertising. Our collective responsibility to autonomy is, in the words of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, to “contribute to the public accountability of higher education institutions without…forfeiting the degree of institutional autonomy necessary for their work, for their professional freedom and for the advancement of knowledge.” 2 In other words, our exercise of academic freedom should not threaten academic freedom itself.

Jack Heinemann

2 “Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel” UNESCO 1997.