The times they are a-changin'.

By Brandon Johnstone, co-branch president, University of Otago

Late last month, the Government announced a further $128 million investment in tertiary education, via SAC funding. This represents a sizeable portion of the funds that were promised to our sector in ‘Vote Tertiary Education’ (in Budget 2022) but were not delivered. $128 million that our sector would not have seen, if not for the collective action of thousands of workers and students across the country these last few months. And not only funds, but a critically important acknowledgement by the government that the current funding model is not fit-for-purpose for a tertiary education sector run in the interest of a forward-thinking public.

This $128 million SAC funding is distributed under the existing funding model, across all tertiary education institutions as per their proportion of student enrolments. So, roughly $21 million to the University of Otago over two years, and $12.4 million to Victoria University of Wellington.

Nobody could argue that this is more than a small bandage upon a large wound. That said, the bandage is welcome, and critically, it buys us time. Time to sit down with the employer and the government and say “right, we all know there’s a problem, we all know more funding is required, let’s find a way to fix this without amputating our workforce.”

Stopping these cuts is the priority. Change of structure is inevitable as conditions around us evolve, but universities do not have a valve that can be tightened and loosened as needed. If, due to nothing but our bank balance, we lose academics and programmes that hold institutional knowledge, then we lose our capability to train students in those areas. If we develop a smaller cohort of well-educated graduates, then those graduates do not exist when we want to expand our programmes to provide the workforce with more teachers, more climate scientists, more sociological and political experts, more doctors, and virologists, and so on.

Moreover, we are union. We are the collective voice of academics, of educators and researchers. But the tertiary sector also cannot exist without the mahi of administrators and librarians, of technicians and IT support, of payroll and security. Universities in ‘university towns’ such as the University of Otago require a great deal of pastoral care to provide a healthy environment for our learners. The Tertiary Education Union fights for a sustainable, healthy future for all of us.

Our task in the weeks and months ahead is to set the foundation for a healthier future for tertiary education. Not by the ideology of the balance sheet that demands that our institutions become smaller and weaker, and force students to pay more for less, but by adequately and appropriately resourcing our sector to provide for the challenges before us.

All of this stands to be lost if a mass plundering of tertiary education is allowed to proceed.

Our staff and students, and the wider community, are organising to save the soul of knowledge and wisdom on these islands. We’ve been loud this year so far, and we only intend to be louder and stroppier until our sector and the future of knowledge is secure. To those who stand at the levers of power: This three-decade old road is rapidly agin'. Please get out of the new one if you can't lend your hand, for the times they are a-changin'.