Sandra Grey: Universities' response to staff survey bears out bullying claims

Report into staff wellbeing shows that fear is sadly still rife in all tertiary education institutions. Photo / 123RF
Report into staff wellbeing shows that fear is sadly still rife in all tertiary education institutions. Photo / 123RF

When I became president of tertiary education's largest union it was quite a shock to see the fear that existed in the sector.

As an academic I have always been a great believer in, and practitioner of, academic freedom and testing received wisdom at every turn.

Then I had a meeting with staff in private training establishments that had to be conducted in a carpark because they didn't want their boss to know they were talking to union representatives.

The response to last week's publication of the Tertiary Education Union's (TEU) report into staff wellbeing shows that fear is sadly still rife in all tertiary education institutions.

Rather than feeling they can speak up in their own workplaces about the pressures to amend grades or change how they deliver a course, my colleagues have had no option but to share their experiences anonymously by phoning broadcasters and commenting on news media websites.

Picking up on the fear and seriousness of the experiences staff were sharing, the NZQA called for whistle-blowers and the boss of the Tertiary Education Commission gave out his own cell phone number so staff could call him anonymously about their concerns.

It worries me that educational professionals are forced to hide in the shadows when trying to defend public quality education.

Our institutions proclaim to teach critical inquiry but then admonish anyone that examines the conditions of staff and students. Staff often witness disaffected colleagues being dismissed out of hand or bullied into silence. It is no wonder they're fearful of speaking out.

Our members have told me about being in meetings to discuss staff satisfaction surveys where bosses have publicly said to their colleagues, "If you are unhappy with the way this place is run, there's the door."

Professor Stuart McCutcheon, head of Universities NZ, last week said if staff are unhappy with the way their institutions are run they'd leave in greater numbers.

In other words, the representative voice of New Zealand's universities believes the only way to show dissatisfaction with the rules put in place by government and managers is to give up your job.

It is common for staff to be misheard, ignored, or silenced because speaking out harms the institution's ''brand''.

We have seen what some tertiary education bosses said in response to a survey of 1006 people working under them. Their comments echo the finding that there is lack of respect for staff views and high levels of bullying in the sector.

Speaking publicly about the survey's finding that pressure to pass students has become worse under National, Universities NZ said it "strongly denies that universities are relaxing standards for entering university or passing courses."

This statement bears no relationship whatsoever to what survey respondents said.

What the survey results actually showed was that 63 per cent of staff surveyed said they had been pressured to pass people in courses.

We never said they are actually doing it. This blatant misrepresentation just goes to show that our institutions don't even listen properly when we speak up at a national level.

The lack of respect for staff views isn't new. It is part of the reason staff are highly stressed.

One survey respondent noted that "secretive decisions [are] announced as fait accompli" and there is "bullying of anyone who questions ..."

Others said they were "disempowered" and "disrespected".

Survey respondents and the TEU are not alone in questioning what is going on in our universities, wananga and polytechnics.

A range of New Zealand and international academics have spoken of how the compliance culture set by the Government and enforced by managers has led to tertiary education institutions focusing on the "material goods produced for NZ Inc." rather than core values like critical thought and independent inquiry.

What's more the TEU's survey makes clear that our institutional managers punish any deviation from National's plan to run down our public tertiary education sector.

This doesn't have to continue. Our mangers and the Government could be open to critique and ensure staff are able to practice the critical thinking that their ''brand advertising'' seems to profess is at the very heart of their mission.

Staff in the sector repeatedly present compelling evidence that National's approach to tertiary education is failing. Hundreds have done so yet again in this latest research.

What they have shown is that National's approach is putting staff under enormous pressure and will, if expanded through proposed changes to the Education Act, harm the quality of our education system. Now is time for tertiary education Minister, Paul Goldsmith, and institution bosses to listen.

* Sandra Grey is national president of the Tertiary Education Union.

- NZ Herald

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