Although universities are internationally thought of as the home of research and new ideas, relatively little research was undertaken in New Zealand universities during the first half of the 20th century because of small staff numbers and heavy teaching loads. Since the 1960s, when research-based PhD degrees started to be awarded, there has been a steady increase in the level of research carried out at New Zealand universities. In contrast with the more applied research undertaken by other organisations, university research covers a wide range of disciplines including the humanities, music and art, and includes both ‘blue-sky’ and applied topics.
When William Morrell was appointed professor of history at Otago University in 1946, his contract specified teaching, examination and administration – but there was no mention of research. Although Morrell was a distinguished scholar, publishing books on Commonwealth and New Zealand history, his research was a spare-time activity undertaken mainly in vacations and periods of sabbatical leave.
The Education Act 1989 defines New Zealand universities as institutions of advanced learning, where research and teaching are interdependent, and where teaching is conducted by people active in advancing knowledge. The act also specifies that the universities have a role as ‘the critic and conscience of society’.
Performance-Based Research Fund
In 2003 the government decided to allocate research funding to the universities through the Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF), based on three criteria:
- quality of individual researchers (60%)
- research degree completions (25%)
- external research income (15%).
This has had the desired outcome of boosting the research output of the universities, and encouraging them to seek external research income. It is estimated that approximately 60% of university research is undertaken by graduate students.
The research output of the eight universities is unevenly spread. Auckland and Otago, the two largest, are responsible for 50%, while Massey and Victoria together contribute 25% and the remaining four universities (Canterbury, Lincoln, Waikato & AUT) combined undertake the remaining 25%.
Centres of Research Excellence (CoREs) were introduced to encourage the development of cooperative research in the university system. Each CoRE is hosted by a university, and includes a number of partners from other organisations, Crown research institutes and wānanga.
In 2014 there were six CoREs:
- the MacDiarmid Centre for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology
- the Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery
- the Medical Technologies CoRE
- the Dodd-Walls Centre for Quantum Science and Technology
- Te Pūnaha Matatini Centre for Complex Systems and Networks
- Brain Research New Zealand – Rangahau Roro Aotearoa.
In May 2014 government funding was announced for a further four CoREs by 2016, including a Māori CoRE.
There was also a broad range of university-based research centres. The New Zealand Centre for Sustainable Cities at the University of Otago is an interdisciplinary centre that researches solutions to the economic, social, cultural and environmental development of cities. The University of Auckland’s Woolf Fisher Research Centre developed models to improve students’ educational achievement, particularly in Māori, Pacific and low-income communities.