Sharn Riggs, national secretary of the Tertiary Education Union, responds to a recent article by the chair of Universities New Zealand, Stuart McCutcheon, and reminds all vice-chancellors of their responsibility to improve tertiary education and enrich the contribution our public institutions make to society.Vice-Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon wrote recently that a loss of institutional autonomy was a possible consequence for any university that tries to avoid or delay the ‘necessity’ of staff cuts. He is wrong.Writing as chair of Universities New Zealand, McCutcheon invoked the tired cliché that, while staffing cuts are not “of our making”, they are somehow unavoidable or inevitable. They are not. Cutting staff is a choice. A choice that managers often make whilst hiding behind language that claims they are powerless to do anything about it.Aotearoa New Zealand is facing a range of challenges that require tertiary education institutions to step up, be bold, and acknowledge the responsibility they have to deliver the quality teaching, research, and training we need to address them.Take the teacher shortage as an example.Here is a crisis that could have lasting impacts on future generations of students. If someone has experienced the damaging effects of not having enough teachers at any stage during their primary or secondary education, I would say they’d be far less likely to go on to study at the tertiary level. Maybe because they didn’t get the support they needed to succeed, or perhaps because there was no one there to inspire them to continue their learning journey.Looking at how to address this from the perspective of what would benefit the public most, it would be sensible to assume that tertiary institutions would be saying to the government that they are ready and willing to do what they can to train more teachers.Rather than doing this, Stuart McCutcheon has seemingly turned his back on the issue and cut teacher education jobs at the University of Auckland, ostensibly because, he says, student numbers fell in the past.McCutcheon says institutions try to address falling student numbers by “promoting subjects with falling enrolments.” But if he’s cutting staff, surely he can only really promote subjects to the extent the university is able to meet demand. Fewer staff means fewer students.The current government is introducing policies it says will encourage more people into teacher education. Assuming it is successful, more people are going to want to become teachers. But thanks to cuts made by Stuart McCutcheon, the University of Auckland will have fewer people there to teach them.Over the past decade, students and staff in the tertiary education sector have been subject to endless rounds of restructuring. Many of these reviews have been justified with the kind of language used in Stuart McCutcheon’s article. Language that claims institutional leaders have no choice but to make cuts.Let’s be clear: language like this is used intentionally as a way of justifying management choices, and to silence opposition. These are choices that have diminished the wider public good that our public tertiary education institutions create.Recently we attended a Council of Trade Unions workshop to discuss New Zealand’s transition to a low carbon economy - referred to as a “just transition.” Much was said about the potential impact on the economy of such a transition and the need to ensure there are opportunities for the people affected to retrain. Tertiary education is going to be absolutely key to making that happen.Tertiary education institutions need to acknowledge the responsibility they have to help deliver a “just transition.” To do that, constant uncertainty about staffing needs to be taken out of the equation. This means properly valuing and retaining the knowledge, expertise and professional capacity that has taken generations to develop.It is not good enough for a vice-chancellor to plead that they are somehow ‘powerless’ in the face of ever-changing market forces. The University of Auckland’s recent budget surplus of $69 million shows, for example, that it has the resources to absorb funding variances across years and provide greater stability.Vice-chancellors are stewards of the public university system and New Zealand’s long-standing tradition of academic excellence. Their positions exist to do more than act as bean-counters and oversee gradual cuts. Their motivation should not be short-term cost-cutting, but rather improving tertiary education and enriching the contribution that our institutions make to society.Clearly, there are alternatives to routine staff cuts and departmental downsizing.Tertiary education institutions need to invest in greater long-term resilience to help smooth the impact of variances in student numbers, and to bring into their councils more representatives from students, staff and iwi to help improve decision-making.Vice-chancellors simply cannot decide on teaching programmes, core research goals, or whether to invest in a new computer suite or more tutors, without input from staff with professional teaching, research and support expertise.There is nothing ‘inevitable’ about staff cuts. Addressing the teacher shortage and transitioning to a low carbon economy are just two examples of challenges that we must urgently address. How that story unfolds will be a matter of the choices we make.

Also in Tertiary Update this week:

  1. Latest commissioner appointment heaps pressure on Education Minister for urgent change
  2. Voting opens for next TEU leaders
  3. All institutions should adopt the Living Wage, ITP vice-president elect, George Tongariro
  4. Equality must be embedded in all we do, women’s VP elect Sarah Proctor-Thomson
  5. Let’s carry on the work of Te Tiriti group, Te Tumu Arataki candidate Bill Rogers
  6. “Unionism has been a significant part of my life” Te Tumu Araki candidate Hūhana Wātene
  7. Focus on student and staff wellbeing more important than ever
  8. Māori women are now effectively working for free

Other news

A Cabinet paper shows some Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics are at high financial risk, with none expected to make a three percent surplus this year - RNZThe Council of Weltec and Whitireia has released a statement about the appointment of a commissioner in its place - WelTecThe new global university rankings have been published - RNZThe sole Māori academic at the University of Otago law school for two decades, Professor Jacinta Ruru, has called for more Māori lecturers – ODT