Petitioning our employer so students can have a brighter future

Michael Gilchrist, TEU National President, looks at the lengths staff in tertiary education are going to in order to be heard by their employers.How often have you had to gather hundreds of signatures on a petition just to get your employer to pay attention to your views?That’s exactly what the tutors, administrators, student support workers, technicians, and a host of others at Weltec and Whitireia found themselves doing in the last month.Tertiary Education Union members met last week with the chief executive of the two polytechnics to discuss a 377 strong petition about staff voice and are now awaiting a reply. The petition demands that Chris Gosling engage in proper conversations about the future of the beleaguered institutions.Facing the need to pay back a $15 million government loan the chief executive has announced cuts to student services and engineering at Whitireia. But those who are on the frontline with students fear these cuts will destabilise the institution.They are worried that the cuts will lead to a lack of confidence from current and prospective students, and then a downward spiral of having fewer students, courses and jobs being cut, then fewer students, and so on.And this fear is compounded for staff because they feel locked out of the processes for deciding how to make Whitireia and Weltec sustainable long-term.Being ignored is a common state in our tertiary education sector. Research released on May 1 shows that over 80% of staff surveyed on the state of the public tertiary education sector felt they are excluded from having influence at the level of council, in restructuring and changes, and at the level of institutional process of change.This is despite staff being the experts in teaching, learning, and research – the heart of what polytechnics, universities, and wānanga are all about.With their institutions in financial crisis, Weltec and Whitireia staff think it’s time for the chief executive and other senior staff to do things differently. No more decisions made behind closed doors and then foist upon staff and students.Those working in labs, lecture theatres, workshops, libraries, administrative offices, and all over the two Wellington region polytechnics want to make sure their students and communities continue to have the transformative opportunities a polytechnic qualification provides.This can only be achieved if their expertise is taken seriously. This means the chief executive has to stand out from the crowd and be an institutional leader open to power sharing.Only 13.5% of respondents to the latest nation-wide state of the sector research think there is willingness to share power in tertiary institutions. Weltec and Whitireia staff want this to change.The staff “feel strong leadership is now needed to ensure the long term sustainability and survival of our institutions.”The staff “want to help – to make Whitireia and Weltec great places to study and work. But we can only do this if there is an open, transparent, and accountable working environment.”The staff want “a strategy created using all of our collective energies”.And the staff hope that their chief executive will buck the national trend of rejecting staff voice and meet with all staff in their departments to garner the best ideas to stabilise Weltec and Whitireia.If the government sees the point of involving staff in conversations about the future of vocational education and training as it has done over the last year, then our own institutional leaders should step up as well.