The future of work is in our hands

Posted By TEU on Mar 15, 2019 | 1 comment

Sharn Riggs, national secretary of the Tertiary Education Union, considers what the government’s proposed reform of vocational education means for work and emphasises the need for high-quality permanent jobs.

With a great deal of change ahead, one of the priorities for this government is to think about what the future of work might be like for all us. However, the trouble is, this same government is also presiding over a tertiary education sector that has for years been leaving ever greater numbers of people in precarious situations because of the growth of insecure work.

It is easy for Ministers to say we have to think about the future, but the truth is: how can we consider what skills and knowledge students will need in 20 years when so many of us have jobs that end in six weeks?

Insecure work is a reality for far too many people working in our polytechnics, universities and wānanga. The only future they can think about is making sure they can support their family month-by-month, which often means spending a copious amount of time fighting to get another fixed term appointment. If this is you then you’ll know what I’m talking about.

But if it isn’t you, then think about how difficult it would be to be forced to go from fixed term appointment to fixed term appointment, and all the stress, uncertainty and time this involves, when day-to-day demands must also be met. All too often this means a constant stream of forms and meetings, long hours marking.

There is an ideology of ‘inevitablism’ that pervades most political discussion about the future of work. For example, in talking about how we may be affected by, say, automation. But the reality is, we decide our future. We decide whether or not the economy will support secure work, or whether it will cast us aside in favour of insecurity. There is nothing inevitable about it.

For years, politicians have decided to under-staff our polytechnics and this has led directly to overwork and larger numbers of fixed term and casual appointments. With the Education Minister Chris Hipkins now proposing a major shake-up of vocational education to meet the needs of a world where industries are in flux and technology, one way or another, will change the world of work, we must take a long look at the state of the tertiary education workforce.

Institutes of technology and polytechnics have been starved of government funding for nearly 10 years thanks to the National government seeing education as a market. The negative impacts are palpable. Sure, there are many industry, technological, environmental, and societal challenges and changes facing us all. But demanding creativity, innovation, and future-oriented thinking from people whose jobs are under constant review and upheaval, or where they are overworked, is unfair. Actually it’s impossible.

Most of the money we all put into tertiary education is spent on staffing. This is crucial. It is precisely because we are pooling our resources that we have huge numbers of professional, experienced, and expert people to teach our students. Yet because of the market model foisted on them by successive governments, institutional leaders have spent years trying to cut costs, all in the name of efficiency.

One of the most significant consequences of this has been a relentless review of jobs and courses, leading to massive cuts and the replacement of permanent staff with more and more people on fixed term and casual appointments. Public money must be spent wisely, of course, but casualising people that teach and support future generations of learners is about as unwise as it gets.

The proposed reform of the vocational education sector must do more to acknowledge that polytechnics are functioning only because staff have been overworking or taking fixed term and casual appointments which offer them no security or stability. We know this because we see it every day. And we have the data to back it up.

On 1 May, the results of a survey of nearly 3,000 staff working in tertiary education will be released – and the picture it paints is not good.

Like so much of what politicians prioritise, the financial data of any one institution can tell only part of the story. It takes someone looking beneath the figures to find out what’s really going on. That’s exactly what the survey to be released on 1 May does. So, whilst it is true to say that some tertiary education institutions are doing okay financially, it is the well-being of staff that has been compromised to get that bottom line. That’s simply not sustainable.

Talking to the sector about his plans for vocational education, Education Minister Chris Hipkins has repeatedly stated that we need stability in the polytechnic sector. He’s right. But stability is needed not just at the institutional level, but everywhere. Staff need secure employment with reasonable workloads if they are to tackle the future needs of students, employers, and society. We need to find a way to make that happen.

Politicians often disempower us by pushing the ideology of inevitablism when they talk about the future of work. But we should never accept this. We can and should decide to do things differently.

Our starting point is the knowledge that we cannot keep doing what we’ve always done – cut funding and cut staff in the relentless pursuit of efficiency. Knowing that, we can start to look at what can be done instead. It means changing the funding model, more sharing of resources and ideas, and having staff, students, and communities at the centre of any strategic decision-making.

It’s not just the government that needs to come to the party, but our institutional leaders who need to see that creating fixed-term jobs to meet short-term financial demands has not benefited staff or students. That pushing staff to fill up every minute of the day with ‘face-to-face’ teaching ignores the need for professional development, thinking time, reflection on teaching and learning approaches.

Let’s get this right. Let’s think about what students need, what industry needs, what the future of work needs from us. Then look at the best way to meet those needs. In my mind the one idea that will come up on top – is good working conditions. After all our conditions of work, are students’ conditions of learning.

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you Sharn for your considered position regarding fixed-term appointments in tertiary education. In addition to the challenging situation you point out of having to worry about extensions to contracts and the high teaching/marking workload associated with ‘Teaching and Admin’ only positions, not to talk about the need to progress research anyway (often in one’s own time) to be able to compete for rare permanent positions that might come up in future, the terms for fixed-term staff are often worse than conditions for permanent staff. This includes less annual leave, less benefits, no research and conference funding support, and occasional the need to take annual leave to attend conferences. Although understanding managers and heads of departments can alleviate some of these challenges, the structural injustice remains for staff who sometimes sit on fixed-term contracts for years, undertaking the same work as colleagues on permanent contracts. Unfortunately, this has not yet been addressed in recent employment contracts negotiated by TEU and providers. Considering that some form of fixed-term will likely always exists, more should be done to equal the playing field and create more justice and fairness for colleagues in these situations.

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