TEU member Neil Ward recently celebrated over 50 years as senior technician in the School of Veterinary Science at Te Kunenga Ki Pūrehuroa Massey University. Here, Neil reflects on his time working in the sector, on what has changed, and what has stayed the same.
I entered the School of Veterinary Science as a technician in 1969, back when the university recruited professional staff and technicians as school leavers. The university was active in working with school careers advisors, employing school leavers, and providing on-the-job training. Polytechic-based New Zealand Certificate of Science courses were tailor-made for support type functions in all sorts of science and industry.
The in-house, hands-on training I received was excellent, and the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research would also recruit school leavers who trained as technicians with many going on to become scientists. These, I feel, were kind of the good old days.
When I started, the university didn’t have any HR staff and then appointed one person as a personnel officer around 1970. I was part of the formation of the New Zealand Universities Technician’s Union in 1971 and have been an active member since as we merged into the AUS and then TEU. It has been increasingly important for a union prescence ever since as more and more managerialism took control of university operations. I have been proud to have been able to support my collegues in welfare and training activities through union activism. This has been a distinctive feature of unions in the tertiary sector but more latterly industrial matters have also been a major focus.
I owe these fifty years in the School of Veterinary Science to both the enjoyment and satisfaction I get from my work, my continued passion and interest in science and technology and the invigorating and enjoyable work environment. The outstanding thing for me has always been the constant new science and research that goes on within the School. We are always immersed in research programmes, and we always have teams of exciting and passionate post-graduate students that make it such an enriching environment in which to work and be a part of and which I think is quite unique to the university sector.
It’s an incredible incentive to work and perform to support both teaching and research, which is basically what we as technicians do, and to be able to support both research and learning without commercial pressures was a real distinction of the university sector.
It has changed a lot now with competition for government funding and research contracts. In the early days it was rare for someone to be made redundant as work was found somewhere else if a project ended. Now slash and burn is common, people are just numbers.
Within the sector itself, much has changed, but much has stayed the same. The universities have historically been run by academics, for academics. Historically, before my time, technical staff didn’t exist because there was little or no technology or computers. There wasn’t the complexity of support staff in universities, and now, as we know, the university wouldn’t function within a modern tertairy education sector without them.
However, a stark divide still exists which we need to move past. Team work needs to be recognised and acknowledged to incentivise others to carry on and excel. This must include both the teaching and research contribution of professional staff. Nowhere is this divide and lack of acknowledgement more stark than within the current pay scales compared with other parts of the public service and the private sector.
Over fifty years later, I can look back on a lot of change, both within my school and across the tertiary education sector. Within the areas of physiology and anatomy, historically the use of animals was accepted as central to both teaching and research. Gradually, and progressively, views on the use of animals have changed and the social licence to use animals by government and the public has changed.
Both staff and students have collectively resisted the use of animals as we progressively develope better ways, and with the aid of computer technologies, high quality graphics, and interactive software improving, we have found exciting new ways to develop learning and research without animals. In my area for teaching we have moved from 800 animals per year to none this year.
I have been fortunate in my group to have worked in an environment that recognises both teaching and research and suppor for their staff. There are systems that recognise the contribution people have made, and I have received ANZCCART animal technician’s award, Vice Chancellor’s award for teaching, team research medal, NAEAC Three Rs award, life time membership to the Australian and New Zealand Laboratory Animal Association and the TEU Excellence in teaching support award. I have also been fortunate to have had support to attend training and conferences which resulted in authorship and co-authorship of over 50 research publications and presentations.
Being in an environment where your contribution is acknowedged has been extremely rewarding, but there is still generally a lack of recognition of professional staff. Theft of intellectual property or non-acknowledgement of contribution - particularly from professional staff and technicians in science and technology – is very real, when the contributions of the entire team are not recognised. Of course, this has improved. Your highly skilled professional staff simply can’t function without them being trained and attending courses, but the sector still has some way to go. I have been lucky in my area, but its not always the case elsehwere. This remains as work still to do for the TEU.
Fifty years has taught me a lot about the sector, but much more about what can be achieved working in a team environment where people are valued, respected and appreciated in the work they do.