One of New Zealand’s best-known scientists says it’s “gutting” to have been made redundant in a top research role at Victoria University of Wellington, where a proposed cost-cutting restructure could lead to hundreds of job losses.
Dr Mike Joy – a prominent and vocal freshwater ecologist, and the inaugural recipient of Universities New Zealand’s Critic and Conscience of Society Award – told the Herald he’d been given three months’ notice on Monday.
Joy had moved from Massey University five years ago to join Victoria’s Institute for Governance and Policy Studies (IGPS) as a senior research fellow.
The university told the Herald that, after beginning a review of the institute over a need to find external funding and following the recent departure of its director, it had decided to disestablish two roles.
One was Joy’s; the other was held by another leading academic, economist and social policy adviser Dr Michael Fletcher.
At the time Joy started in his role in May 2018, he was upbeat, telling the Herald he was eager to wade into the policy space after years of observing the decline of lakes and rivers as a freshwater scientist.
This morning, he said he’d achieved much over the past five years.
“I’ve been involved with an incredible number of outputs – that includes more than 100 public talks and all sorts of interactions,” said Joy, who was seeking redeployment elsewhere at the university.
“That’s just the kind of thing that academics should be doing: engaging the community and doing the critic and conscience thing.
“And just to be dumped like that, it’s pretty gutting.”
Joy said that, when it came to the freshwater space, having independent experts who could speak out was critical.
“There are very few of us who are free to speak up as a lot of [experts] are trapped by funding conditions,” he said.
“That was the great thing about having that under-pinning funding source [for the IGPS]. It meant we weren’t going to have to bow down to any funding organisation or industry.”
Joy has previously received Forest & Bird’s Old Blue award, the Ecology in Action award from the New Zealand Ecological Society, and the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Charles Fleming Award for Environmental Achievement.
Joy’s criticism has in turn drawn its own - former Prime Minister Sir John Key dismissed his views on BBC’s Hardtalk show and soil scientist and agribusiness commentator Dr Doug Edmeades implied he was biased, prompting a response from the New Zealand Association of Scientists (NZAS).
“He, more than anyone else, has become a symbol of universities as critic and conscience,” NZAS co-president Professor Troy Baisden said today.
But amid a series of deep, cost-cutting restructures across most New Zealand universities over recent years, Joy’s case also spoke to the need for more support and investment in what were crucial institutions to society.
“We need to rethink the value proposition that we’re getting from our teaching and research institutions, urgently.”
It’s understood the IGPS’ funding allocation had changed in recent years.
“While the IGPS itself won’t continue in its current form, there are parts of its work that are important to retain and which can become part of existing structures,” Victoria’s deputy vice-chancellor research professor Margaret Hyland said.
The work of the IGPS would be folded into Victoria’s School of Government, both of which produced the Policy Quarterly journal.
Funding for the journal had been committed through to March 2025, with the university seeking “longer-term, external funding” to run the publication from then.
Hyland said the changes at the IGPS would have no impact on the academic freedom of university staff.
“We are committed to being a critic and conscience of society.”
Academics and staff across the university are bracing for widespread cuts - in the same month the Government announced it was putting nearly half a billion dollars behind grand plans to make Wellington a “science city”.
An email to staff from vice-chancellor Nic Smith, seen by the Herald, said the university was forecasting a deficit of $33 million this year.
“Staff have already done a significant amount to reduce spending, taking into account the need to ensure the best possible experience for our students - unfortunately, we need to do more,” Smith said.
Smith said the cost-cutting measures being discussed will result in redundancies among professional and academic staff, and there will also likely be programme closures.
“This is a difficult time for everyone in our community - returning to financial sustainability is a huge task.”
The vice-chancellor told a forum that a consultation process would soon begin which estimated 100 academic jobs and up to 150 professional staff could be cut.
It was understood 59 programmes were under review, most of which were in the arts and humanities.
Smith said the university was still working through options, and the proposal will be ready for consultation late next month.