Tuesday, January 17, 2012

That's not very productive.

Last year, the Auckland Tertiary Education Union (TEU) went to the extreme of offering to forgo a pay rise in exchange for keeping certain conditions in their collective contract. Stuat McCutcheon, the vice chancellor wished the TEU members to relinquish control of conditions governing research and study leave, the criteria on which eligibility for promotions are judged, and disciplinary guidelines. The TEU obviously regard these things as important - "the core conditions being defended by academic staff are not privileges or perks, they relate directly to ensuring quality education and research at the university.” So why would the university administration propose such a thing? In a separate but related conversation, the VC offered non union staff a pay rise and said "administrative efficiencies and realise the productivity gains that will follow from the changes to the employment agreements".
Administrative efficiencies? hell yeah. Offer any academic a more streamlined method of taking care of the administrative work and they will get on board so fast the boat will likely tip over. Administration is something academics generally hate, they much prefer to spend time on teaching and research. Which is why they're academics in the first place.
Productivity gains though? What pray tell are productivity gains? In an educational environment, one has to assume that that means better education for the students. If academics are insisting that they do it, it's obviously important, if it wasn't, they wouldn't be wanting to do it. So why attempt to take away those conditions? I can't really see any sensible reason for it. Auckland university consistently ranks in the top 100 universities in the world. Which is brilliant, but it is there because the teachers and the researchers believe they have an environment conducive to good teaching and good research. And correspondingly, the degrees the students earn are worth more. Start removing facets of academia from the control of people familiar with them and willing to do the work and who knows where we'll end up. I doubt it will be in the top 100 though.
Then we have Peter Gluckman - he's one of the countries top scientists, runs the Liggins instutite up at med school and is the PM's science advisor. In December he gave a speech on how to push our economy forawrd. Here's a hint - you don't do it by cutting every possible corner to make things as cheap as possible. Nez Zealadn being where we are, has to struggle to retain our high tech companies. Gluckman suggests that the way to retain them, is to have their R&D functions "so embedded within the city that it cannot move". He even offers suggestions as to how to go about doing that (emphasis mine):
We have to build a city and a country that really values knowledge and science and entrepreneurship. We need technology parks, we need an intertwining of researchers, in the public and private sector, we need a world class university sector and a vibrant knowledge based ecosystem. Without that I fear for the future. 
You don't get a world class university but cutting costs and removing pieces of academia that the academics feel is crucial to their role. If you want a world class university where academics are allowed to flourish - give your academics the best conditions (which doesn't just mean pay), let them talk to their colleagues around the world. They university becomes and attractive place and you get the option of hiring some of the best teachers in the world. Removing conditions that academics think essential - you get fewer people talking, fewer coming and fewer options. Yes allowance have to be made for the fact that academics are interested parties, but these people spend their lives studing how things work (how education works included), I imagine they have some fairly pertinent insights as to how things should be run.
This is, in short, an economic decision. I want New Zealand to do well. I accept what Peter Gluckman has to say about stimulating our economy. And I think the universities should be aware of both their position in the greater scheme of things and the fact that they are of no use to society if they don't treat their staff well. Treating their staff well is only going to increase the benefitis for their studesnts and society as a whole. The unviersity is the staff. The university is the students.

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