New Zealand

University of Waikato boss referred to new medical school as a ‘present’ for future National government

University of Waikato Vice Chancellor Neil Quigley.

University of Waikato vice chancellor Professor Neil Quigley was in constant contact with National while it formulated its policy on a new medical school.
Photo: RNZ / Joanne O’Brien

The head of the University of Waikato was intimately involved in National’s policy of establishing a medical school at the university, and told one of its senior MPs it could be a “present” to a future National government.

Documents seen by RNZ show vice chancellor Professor Neil Quigley went to considerable lengths to help National develop the policy. Quigley was in constant contact with the party’s health spokesperson, Dr Shane Reti, in the lead-up to its announcement in July this year.

Critics say the university risks its independence by engaging so closely in politics.

The documents also showed Quigley received lobbying advice from former National government Cabinet minister Steven Joyce, whose company Joyce Advisory was paid nearly $1 million for consultancy services to the University of Waikato over the last three years.

The university then engaged Anna Lillis, a former press secretary and political advisor to Joyce, to lead its communications strategy about the school.

Reti sought information and advice on multiple occasions from Quigley, including asking him how quickly a medical school could be up and running.

University of Waikato campus

University of Waikato campus in Hamilton.
Photo: Screengrab / University of Waikato

“The first student intake would be 2027 – a present to you to start your second term in government!” Quigley wrote, in a March 2023 email to Reti.

Tertiary Education Union organiser at Waikato University Shane Vugler told RNZ the university had compromised itself by getting involved in politics.

“It is critical that universities maintain political independence to ensure their academic freedom and their integrity,” Vugler said.

He said the university had engaged with National over the policy “threatened that independence”.

Push for a medical school

As well as being the University of Waikato’s vice chancellor, Quigley has been on the Reserve Bank governance board since 2010 and chairman since 2016.

The University of Waikato has been pushing for a third medical school since it launched a joint bid with Waikato District Health Board in 2016. The last National government was considering the plan, but didn’t start the project and it was ditched by the new Labour government in 2018.

In July this year, leader Christopher Luxon announced a National government would spend $300 million on a new medical school, which would only admit students with a degree and require them to study for four years, rather than the five required for undergraduates.

National Party health spokesperson Shane Reit with leader Christopher Luxon (right) speaking to reporters at the party's cancer treatment policy announcement on 21 August, 2023.

National’s health spokesman Shane Reti shared emails with Waikato University Vice Chancellor Professor Neil Quigley.
Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi

The University of Waikato spent about $5000 on the National Party’s announcement, about half of which was “media and communications support” with the remainder spent on catering and hosting costs.

The documents showed that a day before the announcement, Reti emailed Quigley saying there was doubt in the National caucus about the credibility of the costs outlined in the policy. The costs were similar to the 2016/2017 proposal, despite the new plan catering for more students and the impact of inflation over that time.

“The team and finance person were concerned that folks could say, ‘How is that credible?'” Reti told Quigley. He went on to say National would now promise $300 million in government funding, with the university to pay the rest.

“Can you massage this into the message please,” Reti asked.

The emails showed National made significant last-minute adjustments to its policy at Quigley’s request.

On 28 June, a week before the announcement, Quigley asked Reti to change National’s policy from funding 100 medical students to funding 120.

“I have been working on 120 places rather than 100,” Quigley told Reti. “Could you live with making the number 120? If that’s a problem we’ll stick with 100 and make it work.”

Reti responded just three minutes later, agreeing to the increase and saying that will largely be an issue for the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) in years to come.

“OK. 120 it is,” Quigley replied. “The extra 20 places are within the margin of error for the TEC”.

The day before the announcement, Reti emailed Quigley suggesting a phone call: “Let’s have a brief chat today if we can so that I can make doubly sure I have the correct narrative.”

The emails showed Quigley was mindful of the public relations framing of National’s policy announcement, and that he hoped the medical school would improve Waikato’s international standing. In a May 2023 email he told Reti that international university rankings had just been released, and would be “fresh in people’s minds when you make your announcement”.

“Having a medical school makes a big difference because of the way it drives funding, research outputs and philanthropy.”

Reti was not available for an interview with RNZ, but said in a statement that National was confident of its costings for the third medical school, which he believed was essential given New Zealand was in “desperate need of more doctors” to address shortages in the health workforce.

“It has been our previous policy to have a third medical school in New Zealand. Waikato University has been arguing for this for many years and we knew we could work together with them on developing this proposal.”

Quigley refused an interview with RNZ, but said in a written statement Reti approached the university in 2022 and it was then asked to provide information about the accreditation process.

That information was easily found and only “a few hours” was spent updating the proposal from the 2016/2017 plan.

Quigley said he stood by his help for the National Party.

“It would have been wholly inappropriate for the National Party to make an announcement about a medical school at the University of Waikato without detailed engagement with the University,” Quigley said.

“The university is comfortable with its level of engagement with the National Party and would work equally collaboratively with any political party who wanted to engage with its proposals for addressing the health workforce crisis.”

‘Shame them into supporting it’

The documents show Joyce, a former tertiary education minister, suggested lobbying strategies to help the university gain traction on the idea.

In November 2022 he emailed Quigley, following media coverage of a GP campaign to improve working conditions.

“Have you had a chance to think through any further the idea of a more public campaign for the medical school perhaps piggy backing off this GP campaign? I think it could well be possible to get both major parties to commit to a third medical school and to having it at Waikato before the next election if the work is done well.”

Steven Joyce

Steven Joyce.
Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Quigley told Joyce that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has “so little interest in this university that even she repeats the Otago/Auckland line” and that her claims New Zealand is too small to justify the expense are “nonsense”.

RNZ revealed in March that Waikato had paid a $6900 monthly retainer to Capital Government Relations (CGR) to lobby on behalf of the university since January 2020.

The documents show Neale Jones – a part owner of CGR and formerly chief of staff to Labour leaders Jacinda Ardern and Andrew Little – was leading the lobbying effort on the new medical school.

In a November 2022 email exchange, Quigley told Joyce that Jones believed Labour was “a lost cause on the issue”.

Joyce replied that “you may have gone as far as you can with the behind the scenes approach” and suggested changing tack.

“My general thesis is that a more public campaign could shame them into supporting it ahead of the next election as they come under more political pressure,” Joyce told Quigley.

“Governments often change their views when they want to hold seats.”

Joyce told Quigley that if Labour was thrown out of office, then its opposition to the Waikato medical school would not matter.

“But there’s a non-trivial risk they return with a tight majority and if they haven’t changed their policy another three years with no progress on the medical school.”

Joyce told Quigley the time was ripe for a public campaign for the medical school, with media attention of medical workforce issues and a call by GPs for more investment, funding and doctors “which we could latch on to”.

Joyce had been contracted to the university since 2019, initially to lead a brand campaign and student recruitment strategy and then in a role Waikato described as “selling the wider university story”.

The university paid Joyce Advisory Ltd $966,000 between December 2019 and December 2022, according to dozens of invoices obtained by RNZ in June.

Joyce did not respond to RNZ’s requests to discuss this work.

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