A conversation with Sharn Riggs

Next month will see TEU National Secretary Sharn Riggs step away from her leadership role after 10 years as TEU National Secretary and 30 years of unionism with the tertiary education sector. In the first of a two part conversation for Tertiary Update, we asked Sharn to reflect on her time with TEU and working within tertiary education.

It’s important for us to acknowledge you started in education and you’re finishing in education, having led the union through a merger as well. If you’re looking at TEU today - the result of an amalgamation with the Association of Staff in Tertiary Education (ASTE) and the Association of University Staff of New Zealand (AUS) in 2009 -  and all the changes you have seen, what are the things you are most proud of as the leader of this union?

Well I think the merger is a really key part of how we have moved forward because being too small really does stymie your ability to achieve your collective goals. So the merger of AUS and ASTE was significant. Bringing that together in a way that was good for our members, but also good for our staff, and I do feel proud of that. I think it was an important achievement in how we behaved, all of us, through that process. It was Te Koeke Tiriti before we had Te Koeke Tiriti: the process of making sure people’s voices were heard even though many of those voices were in a smaller space.

Remember that ASTE was a result of a number of amalgamations, and so was AUS, and it’s hard juggling the different needs and the different voices, but keeping focussed on those big three or four things in the sector is what keeps members together. Also knowing that we’re working towards the same goals. Some of that is delivered through collective agreements, and negotiations, and some of it is about seeing us being vocal, reading about us in the newspaper, seeing the press releases, reading Tertiary Update and talking, being out and about and being visible.

After three decades working in tertiary education and in the union movement, how have things changed and how things have stayed the same?

I think the most constant thing is the place of unions in protecting the rights of working people in having a say about how their work is organised and their professional voice in what happens in that space. I think that role is particularly important in education unions because we’re working with kids right through to life-long learning and supporting people in how their futures and their lives are going to be and about how their life is going to look. I think that if people don’t have a say through their unions about how they want their jobs to look, and about how their profession should be shaped, then we have lost a whole part of what we need to be as participants in our society.

And in that three decades you’ve seen real attacks on the rights of workers’ voice, so where do you feel we are today?

I think the reform of vocational education is a huge success for the union and our members. All through this process, members’ voice around what polytechnics should be and how they should look, even though we’ve got a much bigger range of views around things like where degrees should be taught, even with that happening the voice of our members has always been about students. It’s always been about the communities that they live in, and what needs to be delivered in that environment, and fundamentally, their commitment to what they teach, and how they teach and the quality of what they teach.

But I think change has taken quite a lot of pushing. It didn’t come out of a vacuum, it came out of our collective voice. One of the really strong voices was TEU members, and not just polytech members, but university members and wānanga members, engaging together, working together across the entire country, not just in the Minister’s office, but in a whole lot of other spaces as well.

Keep a look out for part 2 of our conversation with Sharn in the next edition of Tertiary Update, 10 March.

Also in this update:

Some thoughts on Sharn from our TEU president

NorthTec members calls for employer to live its own values

Coronavirus travel ban extended

Emphasis on Te Tiriti, equity and support for Māori in new law

Keeping you informed of TEU submissions to government

Other News

Time for public to have say on name for new national institute – Ministry of Education

NorthTec tutors speak out on industrial action – NZ Herald

Massey University proposes axing science at Albany, Auckland - 400 students affected – NZ Herald