Te Hautū Kahurangi | Tertiary Education Union National Secretary Sandra Grey highlights the challenges of speaking up in the tertiary education sector.

These are unusual times. Times in which we need more than ever the contributions of those who make it their life’s work to teach, learn, research, critique, and support learners through the transformative journey that is tertiary education.

COVID-19 raises major questions and challenges for all societies, even Aotearoa which has been buffered somewhat by distance, going hard and early, and the ability to share resources with those who are struggling in business or paying their household bills.

Now more than ever we need universities to fulfil their mission as critic and conscience, and staff and students to pick up their academic freedom responsibilities.

Now more than ever we need creative and dynamic tutors, lecturers, support staff, academic advisors, and lab demonstrators who can be nimble and support learning in a COVID world.

Our institutional managers – I have decided to remove the word leaders from this conversation as many of those at the top of our tertiary education institutions seem more concerned with keeping staff in line than creating a dynamic tertiary education sector – repeatedly send out missives congratulating staff on all they are doing in these unusual times.

Alongside these congratulations is a counter tendency of fear and mistrust.

This isn’t new in our tertiary education sector it has been building for a couple of decades. There has been substantial mission drift in which universities have moved from being there for the public good, to being institutions that compete as ‘businesses’ for learners, funding, and reputational gains.

The sad fact is that this desire to protect reputations – brands – is flourishing under the cover of COVID.

In the last month or so, TEU has seen a range of people needing union support after being censured for speaking up about decisions made by managers in their institution.

It seems brand protection means everyone in tertiary education institutions are supposed to say silent on the decisions that affect their lives and those of students. Silent about decisions about the strategic direction, what courses will be taught and how, who can speak to the social media and on what topics, and so much more.

At the same time, managers applaud people critiquing other parts of our society and economy.

What we need now is leaders in the tertiary education sector, leaders who are courageous enough to hear critiques not just of the decisions of others but their decisions also.

We can’t have teaching, learning, and research that takes on all COVID-19 is throwing at us, if we can’t challenge the ways in which our institutions operate, the ways our institutions set up teaching, learning, and research.

Academic freedom is about challenging received wisdoms and in law that includes freedom to critique decisions around teaching, learning, and research.

So we want to call on all those in decision-making positions which have been strengthened during two decades of treating education as a business rather than a critical public good to use this moment to recover the mission of publicly funded tertiary education. We call on them to stop being mangers who fear debate about the direction of universities, and to embrace public debate.

The biggest reputational damage being done to our universities right now is the public seeing how scared and distrustful the managers of the sector have become.

If you really want staff in universities, polytechnics, and wānanga to address the big questions, then you need to trust them and encourage them to speak on every topic imaginable.

Together we can recover the central mission of a university, starting with the right of staff and students to be open and engaged in the direction of teaching learning and research.