Professor Tim Hazledine: Auckland University losing its academic values

Auckland University could raise its game. But we should do this with bottom-up targets. Photo / Richard Robinson
Auckland University could raise its game. But we should do this with bottom-up targets. Photo / Richard Robinson

• Tim Hazledine is a professor of economics at the University of Auckland.

I'd like to tell you about a couple of interesting things that happened on campus recently.

First, we went on strike, to protest lack of progress in our pay negotiations with the Vice Chancellor. It was just a little strike - one hour from noon on a Thursday. I happen to give a lecture at this time, so I cancelled that, and spent the hour eating my lunch and reading the newspaper.

When I got back to my desk I found a terse email from the Director of Human Resources (sic), telling me that an hour's pay would be deducted from my salary this month.

Fair enough, I thought: you go on strike; you withdraw your labour: you don't get paid for that time - that's how it works.

But I was wrong. At least, I wasn't on-side with a large number of my colleagues. First a trickle, then a flood of messages came across from the union group-email list - all the next day, all weekend, and still going. My colleagues were writing in protest at the DHR's email. They thought its tone ungracious and uncollegial. But they were specially upset at having their pay docked for that hour, even though most (not all, surprisingly) had obeyed union orders and gone on strike.

What is their beef? Over and over, colleagues reported the "extra", hours they routinely put in for their research and their students - well over 40 hours a week, and often in the evenings and weekends, many claim. They thought it unfair that this "unpaid" labour should be rewarded by a pettifogging clipping of their pay packet because of one hour's industrial action.

Personally, I am not too sure about this argument. But what I was really impressed, or depressed, to learn is just how unhappy many of my colleagues are. They, like me, love their work, but they do not love their job at the University of Auckland. Especially with the younger ones, and perhaps especially the women, they feel insecure, unappreciated, frustrated, in a work place that has become increasingly bureaucratised; in which "management" has seemingly lost sympathy with our core academic values.

That's what they say they feel, anyway, and the numbers are supportive: in the Faculty of Commerce, for example, the ratio of managers and their ilk to front-line teaching, research and support workers has increased from two managers to every 40 lecturers to about two to five over the past 30 years. And believe me, our work has not been made easier or more effective as a result.

Hopefully management will get the message. They have actually backed down on the pay cut, so perhaps that's a good sign. But the Vice Chancellor has other things to think about, and that's the second piece of campus news I want to share. The day after our mini-strike the VC launched a "campaign to help build a better future for New Zealand". He proposes to use up to $300 million of kind donors' money to purchase research into a list of pre-assigned topics.

This worthy-sounding endeavour is actually highly contentious. It cuts right across established university principles and the Education Act that defines these. The principle is that the academic staff of the university choose what they will research (and teach), and the job of the Vice Chancellor and his managers is to basically feed and house us as best they can in support of our autonomous efforts.

The principle applies to would-be donors as well. We sincerely thank them, may offer to put their name on something, but insist that their generosity comes with no strings attached. What this means in practice is that donor funds generally go to support people, not projects: scholarships for needy students; research fellowships; endowed Chairs. All the university's fund-raising activities are currently run on these lines.

Auckland University could raise its game. But we should do this with bottom-up targets, such as building up the best Arts and Science faculties in the Southern Hemisphere, and fostering a happy work environment. If the "university bosses" - as the Herald put it - think they can make us the Oxford of the south by dictating half-baked topics for our research, then they are revealing the same deep-seated disconnect from what a great, or even just good, university actually is as has been exposed by the surprising aftermath of our little strike.

- NZ Herald

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