What a year it has been!
We in tertiary education have been lucky that our work has continued under the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic - but it continues to be a very stressful and demanding time. Workloads have increased significantly – dramatically in many cases - while job security has decreased. An unusual and unhappy combination!
Fixed term and casual staff – particularly early career academics in universities - have been thrown out of work and proposals for further cuts in courses, in support for students, in opportunities for communities and in jobs are beginning to surface. Rebutting and redirecting the kneejerk responses of management when faced with financial deficits - transforming those responses into constructive strategies to retain, re-train and re-deploy staff – this is the biggest and most immediate challenge we face as a union. But in the midst of this challenge – and bearing in mind that tertiary education will unquestionably be at the frontline of the recovery from the pandemic, with some significant increases in student numbers already beginning to appear - we remain optimistic.
Unions are about making change – and we are seeing that social transformation is possible. We have already had a huge influence in creating the new direction of vocational education in Aotearoa. We’ve done that by arguing the need for reform and arguing continually for our voice and involvement in the shape of those reforms. Now the leadership shown by our government during the Covid crisis and the support shown in response throughout the country are making this a time of further opportunity.
The door of opportunity was opened a little with RoVE (Reform of Vocational Education) – and it has been opened a little further by recent events – on the potential for a cohesive and caring society focused on the values we pursue in our union, unlocking the life transforming potential of tertiary education. We have sacrificed so much over the years to keep that dream alive in our work – there is now this potential to realise the transforming power of education on a much more equitable, elevating and far-reaching basis than we have experienced in Aotearoa for many, many years.
There are two main challenges that lie before us over the coming year, then, one defensive and the other creative. In fact, the two are bound up together, and we must always approach them in that way. First, we will need to fight to defeat short-sighted proposals to cut the range of courses on offer, particularly in the universities. Second we must promote the retaining, re-training and re-deployment of staff to a new level as demand from local students and local communities both increases in scale and shifts radically, reinforced by financial incentives from the Government.
We will keep arguing for a more collaborative, sector-wide response to these challenges. We will keep the pressure on to squeeze out competitive, market-oriented models of tertiary education. And above all, we will keep our eyes on the prize: an equitable, accessible, fully public tertiary education system and the social, economic and cultural well-being it creates.
Te Hautū Kahurangi is the change maker we have, it is our waka, the vehicle for our aspirations. Our union is governed by our values and those values are grounded in our Tiriti o Waitangi relationship. Tū kotahi, tū kaha we are strong and unified and we leave no-one behind. Ngā piki, ngā heke – we endure together through good times and bad. Awhi atu, awhi mai – we take actions that seek to improve the lives of the most vulnerable and we are reciprocal in our relationships. And finally, tātou, tātou e - we work, through participation, to build our collective strength and to build our shared sense of purpose that puts that collective strength to work.
So first of all, we will continue to strengthen particpation. Covid-19 has shown us that connecting regularly with each other is vitally important. We now have a range of Zoom based reference groups – a general staff group, a Covid-19 response group, a group for the reform of vocational education, a group for academic staff – I’m shouting out for participants in the academic staff reference group, there’s lot coming up in that space. And these are in addition to our existing committees and democratic structures – our National Council, our National Women’s Committee, Te Toi Ahurangi the Industrial and Professional Committee, the Under 35 and Talanoa and Rainbow Networks and so on.
We will keep pushing too, for staff involvement at every level in our institutions, working with students wherever possible to push back against the dominating role of managers. We have won a mandate for this in the RoVE legislation – explictly, to empower staff and students. We will be making it live in practice. And we will be finding ways to make it flow on into the universities, wānanga and other institutions, further empowering staff.
Our next key goal fits naturally with this continuous demand for voice and participation - to foster collegial, inclusive and equitable workplaces. A prime objective is to maintain and improve the quality of teaching and research in the face of commercial pressures that seek to undermine it. Emergency online teaching, for example – and the huge effort we all put into making that succcessful – must not be allowed to undermine and displace face-to-face teaching and high quality, online offerings, tailored to specific needs. The tendency to displace face-to-face teaching threatens to create both unhealthy, unsustainable workloads and to cause job losses. We will be working collectively to ensure all students who need it have access to face-to-face, social learning and to harness public and student support for this essential provision.
The loss of international students in our sector – and reducing our dependence on international students is another major challenge we will face. We have been arguing for sometime for a nationally co-ordinated, sector-wide response to Covid-19 and we are now getting official support for an approach that brings all the key players in to work together on these challenges. Tackling the longer term strategic questions around international students will be the first specific area of work we will etablish – along with a sector wide strategy on re-training and re-deployment of staff. In terms of equitable workplaces we will be picking up our efforts to establish the basis for gender pay equity claims in areas of work such as administration.
Staff conditions of work are students conditions of learning – and this brings us to our third goal as a union of maintaining and improving pay and working conditions for our members. We will be continuing to prepare the ground for unified collective agreements in the polytechnic sector and we will be seeking to advance under the value of tātou tātou e, into more unified bargaining in universities.
All of this depends on increasing our union membership, not just in overall numbers but also in terms of density – the proportion of union members to total staff numbers in a workplace. Greater density means greater influence – and we can’t get stronger without getting larger. Branches will be working with their organisers to get our union membership growing again. We have halted the decline in our numbers and our union finances are in good shape. We will be investing in growth in every way we can – and we will be providing much more training and education to support our representatives. Growth in our union will be a specific goal that we all take pride in achieving.
As I mentioned at the outset, our fifth and final key goal in the coming year, has a special role in underpinning all our other work. This is our aim to have structures and processes that reflect our commitment to Te Tiriti o Waitangi and advance power sharing between Māori and Pākehā. We will be initiating grassroots debates about possible rule changes that allow for greater power sharing in our union. We will be striving to ensure the commitments in the Government’s Tertiary Education Strategy and in the NZIST charter – commitments we have won – are incorporated and implemented in all institutions.
This is our vision then for the next year. Pressures on us – on our jobs, our workloads and other stresses - will continue to increase in the next six months. At the same time we will be seizing the potential of these times to bring many years of fighting, writing, working and dreaming much closer to fruition. I hope you will feel as inspired as I do to continue this journey we have begun in Te Hautū Kahurangi – to continue to seek out distant horizons, and to guard and value those we attain.
Ko te pae tawhiti whāia kia tata. Ko te pae tata whakamaua kia tina.
Ngā mihinui tātou.
Michael Gilchrist, Te Tumu Whakarae-National President