Challenges to academic freedom debated.

Sandra Grey · Tertiary Education Union

Originally published on on the December 2015

Academics are required by law to be society’s ‘critic and conscience’. But too many are hindered in this role by heavy workloads and discouragement from government and their own managers, says the national president of Tertiary Education Union (TEU).

As a result, New Zealand’s academic community has become “quieter and quieter”, according to a Dr Sandra Grey, a politics lecturer at Victoria University and TEU’s National President. She voiced her views during a forum last week week at Massey University’s Manawatū campus on the public role of academics.

Dr Grey was the first of three guest speakers at the forum titled Critic and Conscience of Society? – the Neoliberal present and uncertain future of universities in Aotearoa New Zealand. Massey University Vice-Chancellor Steve Maharey and Professor Jonathan Boston, School of Government, Victoria University, were also on the panel.

Dr Grey highlighted the statutory role of academics as society’s ‘critic and conscience’. This is explicitly enshrined in the Education Act 1989 as the “freedom of academic staff and students, within the law, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions.”

But the political climate conducive to the exercise and expression of academic freedoms has been eroded over recent years as a result of a changing discourse on the value of university education, she told the audience.

She says the current government’s view of universities’ core purpose is “economic growth and labour market productivity”, with increased emphasis within the academic career structure to focus on peer-reviewed publication for recognition in the PBRF (Performance-Based Research Funding) system. Increasingly too, the state wanted only “good news” research to be publicised, she said.

Voices of the Sector Sandra Grey

Academics have right to comment beyond own research speciality

Academics were also being warned not to speak publicly outside of their specific and typically niche area of research. But according to the statutory terms, they are free to speak more broadly.

She said academics criticised by government and lobby groups for speaking out, such as high profile environmental commentator Massey University senior ecology lecturer Dr Mike Joy, needed more collegial support.

“We should all speak up,” she said, adding that academic freedom is “a privilege and a right, and must be exercised well”.

She cited a survey by AUT’s Work Research Institute of 3000 TEU members last year that found 39 per cent thought academic freedom had got worse, and 42 per cent felt the opportunity to express academic freedom was worse.

Dr Deborah Russell, a lecturer in the Massey School of Business, said during the discussion part of the event, that increasingly heavy teaching and marking workloads meant academics keen to do media interviews often lacked the time.

More government control over universities

Mr Maharey commented on the changes to university governance introduced under the Education Amendment Bill this year, resulting in a shrinking of the size and diversity of university councils. Council membership has been reduced from 20 to a maximum of 12 and a minimum of eight, with no requirement for student and staff representation. The new model takes effect next year.

Mr Maharey noted that the number one-ranked tertiary institution in the world, Harvard University, has 53 people on its governing council.

Although universities are not owned by Government, a pervasive sense of increased government control was “in the water now”, he said.

He reinforced Dr Grey’s exhortation for academics to be proactive in speaking out and offering alternative perspectives on topical issues, noting that the profile of Massey staff in the media had increased dramatically over the past 18 months.

Professor Richard Shaw, from Massey’s politics programme, who facilitated a Q&A session following the speakers, said that public intellectuals had an important role to play in maintaining – and defending – New Zealand’s tradition as an open, tolerant society.

“One of the things we know from the study of history is that dissenting voices are critical to healthy, vibrant democracies,” he says.