Tuesday, May 21

Playing hard ball with bread and butter?

The universities in New Zealand are in a funding crisis – with the current exception of the University of Canterbury. The on-going effects of covid lockdowns on high school student achievement and focus, the reduction in international student enrolments in a sector overly reliant on such cohorts, fewer student choosing to go to university – especially young men – increased internal costs, the ever-increasing employment of the managerial and administrative non-academic sector in universities and capital expenditure blowouts all combine for a perfect storm.  

To fix budget blowouts, universities are, as always in such cases, looking to cut staff. These are both academic staff and administrative staff – so at least the pain is shared. But never, it seems, are those responsible for university strategy and implementation at managerial level ever really held to account. We might claim as academics that we have a role as conscience and critic, but that tends to be expressed – if ever- outside of the institution that employs us. Why?  Because universities are as hierarchical as any other institution or business and those seeking to cut jobs always look downwards, never sideways or upwards. To speak truth to power is, internally to universities, perceived to be a foolish, dangerous act.

Universities want more funding. Academics, threatened with job losses, demand more funding. But Government, as always, can sit secure, knowing there is very little wider societal appetite for redirecting funding into universities. So what we get are ritual acts of defiance by university workers, their representatives and some supportive students, that result in, at most, scattered crumbs unevenly distributed.

University workers need to remember two things. The first is that most of New Zealand has never wanted increased funding for universities as they can’t see the real-world impact and point of doing so. Or, if they support university funding, it tends to be for focused university funding in particular areas and the cutting of those areas deemed unproductive, unemployable or unimportant. In a time of bread and butter politics such anti-university sentiment can be easily reinforced. White collar striking and other industrial action only works if it causes serious disruption to the electorate. It also only works if those undertaking such action are perceived as overworked and underpaid. It only works if those undertaking such action are regarded as providing essential services. It only works if there is the perceived threat of workers leaving that sector en masse and going elsewhere. None of these apply to universities.

However, the second thing universities need to remember is what could get some traction. Traditionally, over the past 5 decades, university staff have tended in the main, to vote left. This means when a National government is in power they can be more or less ignored. Yet it also means, when a Labour government is in power they can also be more or less ignored as their vote is basically guaranteed – no matter what happens. Or so it is presumed.

This year is election year and I am suggesting that if universities and their representatives are serious regarding more funding they play hardball. The TEU, and the universities more generally, should strongly and publicly suggest that they are tired of having their vote taken for granted. The TEU should state they strongly suggest that all members withhold their vote from Labour in the 2023 election. Student unions could also make a similar statement in support. There are of course other options if university workers and students want to vote left, but for Labour to publicly lose the support of universities would probably see some rapid changes occur. 

Of course, this will never happen because university workers and their representatives are not risk takers. What we get are carnivalistic rituals that maintain the underlying status quo: ignored by National and taken for granted by Labour.

But if they are in any way serious, in a context of ‘bread and butter’ politics, universities need to speak hard-ball truth to the power that takes their support for granted.