18 January 2016
The Future of Work: how technology is impacting on work
The Tertiary Education Union Te Hautū Kahurangi o Aotearoa welcomes this opportunity to respond to the New Zealand Labour Party’s discussion paper “The Future of Work: how technology is impacting on work”.
TEU is the largest union and professional association representing academic and general staff in the tertiary education sector (in universities, institutes of technology/polytechnics, wānanga, private training establishments, and REAPs). TEU members experience the impact of technology on work on a daily basis. Whether they are working to support students through the enrolment and course confirmation process, monitoring equipment supply levels, or developing an online programme in their discipline or field, TEU members are fully engaged with the digital and technological revolution. As staff working in tertiary education, TEU members are also uniquely placed to research, evaluate and critique significant social and economic changes such as the digital and technological revolution. It is in this context that we make our general comments about this discussion paper.
Addressing the gaps in the development of digital technology
Like the authors of this paper, we have concerns about the lack of a comprehensive “roadmap for our digital future”. TEU members have already experienced the impact of rapid advances in digital technologies without always the necessary support to adapt to these changes (for example the introduction of online delivery). Therefore we support proposals to develop a roadmap as a priority.
There are a number of issues and ideas raised in the discussion paper; we intend to confine our comments to highlighting impacts in the tertiary education sector, potential positive and negative impacts for workers generally, the digital divide, and the role government should play in regulating digital technology, including the role workers should have in this process.
Impacts in the tertiary education sector
Rapid advances in digital technology have provided significant benefits for staff and students in the tertiary education sector. Access to new tools for communication in lecture theatres, workshops and other teaching spaces have offered exciting new ways to present ideas and information. Streamlined administrative systems, enhancements to library services and other institutional services mean improved services for students and staff.
However significant issues have also emerged. The advent of online provision for many courses and programmes has created challenges for academic staff in terms of managing expectations about being available to students 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The effort involved in preparing course material for online provision has not always been recognised, leading to workload issues for academic and general staff. The openness of the internet also poses some challenges with regard to academic freedom, copyright, intellectual and cultural property and plagiarism.
More recently, TEU members have experienced the ‘hard edge’ of the digital revolution, including recent proposals to outsource some student support services (Unitec) and countless reviews and restructurings where job losses as a direct result of greater automation of systems and processes are a common result. Members are also fighting to ensure that face-to-face teaching and learning opportunities remain at the centre of tertiary education, whilst also recognising that a mix of delivery modes assists in enhancing access.
Our members therefore have lived experience of both the advantages that come from digital connection, and the problems that can arise and rapidly compound if not systematically addressed. TEU has worked over the past decade to include provisions in collective agreements that recognise these new ways of working but that also protect the rights of workers to a fair and equitable workload, security of employment, and appropriate support and professional development to upskill when required.
However, rapid developments in the use of digital technology are bringing even greater challenges. We believe the super-convergence model for providing student support services being implemented by Unitec foreshadows further significant changes for the sector. And whilst we are not opposed to change, we are concerned that changes of this scale are being implemented with little evidence base and inadequate investigation into possible detrimental impacts. Fundamentally tertiary teaching, learning and support are relational, and teaching is very much a relational profession. This understanding needs to remain at the centre of decision-making for the sector, rather than assuming that importing business models from the corporate is the way forward.
Potential positive and negative impacts for workers
As we noted above, staff in the tertiary education sector have experienced both positive and negative impacts in their working lives as a result of more sophisticated digital technologies.
Benefits for these and other workers include a potential reduction in boring and repetitive work, as these processes become increasingly automated. Supportive technologies that can assist work, whether it is of a physical nature or more sedentary can be beneficial for workers.
Certainly, rapid advances in our ability to access a wide range of knowledge and information via the internet and the opportunities this creates to connect to other businesses and service providers national and internationally have been welcomed by workers and their employers.
Greater connectivity has also meant that for some workers, flexible work arrangements have become a very realistic option, allowing them to arrange their lives in a way that suits them, their employer, their family and other commitments.
However as is often the case, for each benefit, there is probably an equivalent negative impact – many of them are probably obvious but are worth restating:
- Potential job losses through automation/centralisation
- Difficulties in accessing education and training for new systems/processes
- Being forced into flexible work arrangements coupled with expectations to be available 24/7 (the scourge of the smart phone)
- Potential for social isolation if more workers are encouraged to work from home or operate mobile offices
These negative impacts have been and continue to be felt in the tertiary education sector. The sector also faces an issue that probably resonates with others in the wider education sector, but the general populace as well.
This issue is a lack of quantitative (or a qualitative equivalent) of capacity for technologically savvy and competent teachers to critically evaluate technologies, both technical safety issues and wider social contexts. The core of the problem is that successive neo-labour and national governments have increased public sector research and teaching institutions’ reliance on the generation of intellectual property that can be licensed for commercialisation. That has normalised the entrepreneurial academic/public sector scientist in every department and institution. Mixing staff in this way induces conformity at the social and institutional levels, resulting in those with technological expertise who would otherwise spend their careers watch-dogging science and technology, having to temper their work and questions so as to not endanger the careers of colleagues, or the commercial imperatives of institutions. It is worse than this, because those who have been ínculturated’ to find the public-private interaction benign, or a general good, are also mixed (and at greater proportions) into grant panels and PBRF panels. It is now just about impossible to have a career where technical competence and scepticism about technology are possible.
More troubling still, it is easier to teach students using examples of technological applications of technology than it is to teach them with intellectual challenges created by scientific or other types of knowledge. Thus increasingly tertiary teachers are being pushed to teach about the mountains climbed like cheerleaders for industry, rather than talk about what we learned from climbing mountains.
So while we do not agree with the assertion on page four of the discussion document that “We are not currently training our workforce to be adaptable enough to changes in technology or providing proper lifelong education solutions for retraining.” we do agree that there is a tension between so-called ‘work readiness’ and maintaining intellectual rigour and critique.
Therefore in the tertiary sector, along with the concerns that have been expressed by many regarding the unregulated pace of change in digital technology, we would also include the potential to undermine academic and intellectual rigour and the ability to critically challenge the systems we work within. Because this problem is so closely tied to neo-liberal agendas, it is a challenge to unravel, but we believe it is critical to do so. It is too simplistic to say that our tertiary education institutions are not adequately preparing students – this implies a lack in teachers and other staff and we know that the problem is much more complex than this.
The digital divide
The ability to access the internet has become an important social, political and economic issue. So much of what we need (services, information and so forth) are now accessed via the internet. Schools and tertiary education institutions all use the internet to support teaching and learning and to provide services to students. The public sector provides much of its services and information online.
Therefore those who are not able to access the internet, whether by geography or financial constraints, are likely to be disadvantaged as this becomes an integral part of our day-to-day interactions. This divide will not resolve itself without intervention by government. It requires a multi-faceted response, including improving connectivity with ultra-fast broadband and a cohesive strategy to address issues of equity of access. It needs to be driven by government as a cross-government, cross-union, cross-sector initiative, with full involvement from communities, businesses and services providers and education providers.
The role government should play in regulating digital technology and the role workers should have in this process
There is a tendency to view the digital technology revolution as something that happens to us i.e. that we have no ability to manage or regulate that changes that may result. This, of course, is untrue – the history of any number of social or technological revolutions clearly shows political, social and economic influences at work shaping these.
Therefore we need a digital technology strategy that challenges assumptions such as that most workers will have to accept that the lines between their work and private life will become blurred (generally meaning work will take over their private life) or that more sophisticated technologies will mean widespread job loss and insecure work. Such a strategy must be led by government, but involve as wide a spread of our communities as possible, including (but of course not limited to) academic with the intellectual skills and knowledge to critique assumptions and assist with developing solutions. And because workers often bear the brunt of any negative impacts of such changes, unions will have a crucial role to play in working with government and others to develop the strategy.