Jennifer Curtin, TEU member, Professor of Politics and Director of the Public Policy Institute at the Te Whare Wānanga o Tāmaki Makaurau | University of Auckland discusses Budget 2021, and the lack of investment in our university researchers, teachers and professional staff.

Universities fulfil a multiplicity of roles. As Universities NZ Te Pōkai Tara note, in addition to providing efficient, effective, quality teaching and learning, the sector works on the development of new knowledge, theoretical and applied, and advances research and innovation. Prior to COVID-19, international education had become the country’s fourth largest exporter, helping to grow an affinity with New Zealand, and internationlise the student experience. The critic and conscience role of universities also enables its academics to bring to the fore the colonising aspects of this internationalisation and the instititutionalised racism embedded within the sector.  

In a recent Audit of the sector’s 2019 performance, and insights on the impact of COVID-19, the Auditor General reminded parliament that the tertiary education sector is important to many New Zealanders’ personal development and future well-being as well as to the country’s future economic performance.

When we talk about ‘the sector’ it is easy to forget that our universities are important anchor institutions in their respective cities and regions which collectively employed approximately 21,500 full-time staff in 2019. We also know that there are many more who are on short term contracts or who are working casually in less than full-time roles. Doctoral scholarships are rarely paid at the rate of the living wage, requiring these scholars to take up additional part time work, while postgraduate student allowances remain glaring by their absence. With COVID-19 has come revenue shortfalls leading to a range of redundancies across the sector presenting early career academics with a gloomy future.

Budget 2021 appears to have overlooked these people. They are the researchers, teachers and professional staff who continued throughout 2020 to provide the quality educational experience, the pastoral care, the technical and administrative support and the evidence that underpinned a number of the Government’s pandemic policy responses (from the health and communication, to the economic and social aspects).  

So, while the $25 per week increase to student allowances, the extension of the hardship fund, the $32.3 million for wānanga and the 1.2% increase in funding per student were all welcome, the hearts of many current and future university employees sank on 20 May 2021.  

Criticism of the limited investment in the sector came from several quarters. From the TEU in its media release on Budget day, to the Tertiary Education Action Group Aotearoa who called it out on twitter saying there was ‘no respite from cost cuts or job losses. No help for PhD candidates/ECRs on poverty wages and nothing much new in the research spend’. This latter point was echoed by Associate Professor Nicola Gaston. She said we need ‘to remind this Government that investment in science, investment in research, investment in education are critical to building capacity and resilience…. I am saddened by … the Endeavour Fund, cut on the order of 10%; the Health Research Fund, similarly cut; the Marsden Fund, cut in real dollars after inflation. These are not nice to haves, these are the bread and butter of our research sector’. Meanwhile Universities New Zealand politely requested the Government consider increasing the number of funded places for New Zealand students, while also emphasising the significance of reopening to international students.

New Zealand Universities are not alone in being ignored by their government at budget time.  Journalist and academic, Jenna Price, has documented the risks associated with a lack of investment in staff, research, and teaching that the Australian higher education sector is also now facing. Given there is likely to be a federal election in Australia later this year, the trans-Tasman budget snubs suggest governments of both persuasions believe they have little to lose politically.

The Auditor General appears to take a different view. He expressed concern that the Government intended to consult the sector ‘as needed’, given long-term sustainability requires co-ordination, co-operation, and leadership: ‘Without a consensus, there is a risk that tactical response decisions being made now might be detrimental to successful outcomes in the long term’ (3.45-3.46). The first step towards achieving such a consensus surely needs increased government investment in universities’ people.