Nearly 30,000 people have been quietly working from kitchens, spare rooms, garages, and lounges over the past five weeks in order to continue supporting tertiary education students across Aotearoa.
They’ve been at home to save lives during the COVID-19 pandemic while at the same time keeping the tertiary education sector running as best they can.
These workers have done many, many extra hours to prepare and deliver lessons online; provide student support by distance; rewrite assessments; facilitate online conversations; and, to make sure all of the administration, IT, and finance tasks keep ticking over. All of this because they want to put learners first.
So, you can imagine how angry these tertiary education teachers, researchers, librarians, tutors, technicians, and administrators are at the suggestion by some employers that they should take pay cuts.
You can also imagine how angry staff are that their employers are putting pressure on their staff to take pay cuts or give up jobs without going through proper processes, without actually showing cuts are needed or warranted.
Employment law has not been suspended. This means all employers - even vice chancellors - must act in good faith. They cannot change the terms and conditions of workers without consultation.
In the last few days ‘options for saving money’ for the tertiary education sector have gone out to staff in a number of universities.
These “suggestions” for tertiary education workers to take pay cuts or to voluntarily give up their jobs, come in the face of increased workloads and dealing with the additional stresses that Covd19 has thrown up.
University, polytechnic, and wānanga staff , like all New Zealanders, watch daily as workers lose their jobs because there is no work to do, because there are no customers and clients, because businesses have no money coming in.
They feel for those in Air New Zealand who lost their jobs because our border had to be closed; they feel for the workers at Altus who lost their jobs because Air New Zealand doesn’t need headsets when there are no international flights.
But the situation in the tertiary education sector is different.
There has been a drop in international student ‘revenue’ which is affecting educational institutions, but most domestic students are still engaged in learning and like all parts of the New Zealand public sector the government funding is guaranteed this year.
This has been emphasised by the Minister of Education Chris Hipkins who told Morning Report this week that he thinks financial issues are "a bit premature" due to the fact most government funding is still being provided. He went on to say universities “are in a reasonably good position to weather this storm financially”.
Far from there being a downturn in the education sector, it is likely more work is going to be coming to those workers in the tertiary education sector in the coming months. This is because in the economic downturn that will face every corner of the globe due to the COVID-19 pandemic, societies will see a rise in unemployment. That will lead to more people wanting education and training. It’s the staff in the tertiary education sector that will do this work.
So why should they be expected to do more for less pay?
Employers in tertiary education must not take money from workers and their families. They must stop making workers feel bad that they can’t afford to give up some of their pay voluntarily.
Rather than punishing those who are working hard to keep New Zealanders engaged in life-long learning, we need our tertiary education leaders to really work through some options with the government and their staff.
We need VCs and CEs and government to join workers at the table to design a unified, nationwide response to the COVID-19 pandemic. A response which puts learners and staff at the heart of all decisions. A response which keeps lifelong learning opportunities open for all New Zealanders.
United we can make sure that tertiary education flourishes so it can be the strong frontline needed to help Aotearoa back onto its feet.
Sandra Grey, National Secretary of Te Hautū Kahurangi | NZ Tertiary Education Union