Academic quality under attack

Written By: - Date published: 1:29 pm, August 24th, 2011 - 22 comments
Categories: education - Tags: ,

Over recent months we have seen sustained attack on the professional autonomy of those working in the tertiary education sector.

Most recently the vice-chancellor of one of the University of Auckland, Stuart McCutcheon, is insisting that academic staff be subject to ‘managerial will’ in regard important conditions for research and research-led teaching. Auckland’s vice-chancellor (despite having once been an academic) seems to see no connection between the professional autonomy of the academic community at Auckland and the quality of the research and teaching there. Giving academics professional autonomy over conditions such as research leave and promotions, means they can pursue innovative research, even if it does not squarely meet the latest strategic plan or government directive. Pursuing research is necessary if we want creative new knowledge that underpins what we teach in universities.

At a range of polytechnics, chief executives are trying to remove access to professional development leave, which keeps our trades and training educators connected to their professions and the standards expected by leading practitioners. The time which polytechnic staff have to keep up with the latest techniques and skills in their professions, provided for under what is strangely called discretionary leave, has a direct impact on ensuring the latest cutting edge skills and techniques are passed on to students.

And at my own institution, Victoria University of Wellington, a range of academic programmes have been closed or reorganised with no academic input and no real consideration of the research and teaching needs of the institution and the New Zealand community. It is crucial that staff, alongside students, have a say in the courses that we teach at an institution, for it is us who know what is happening currently in our academic disciplines around the globe.

These attacks on the professional autonomy of staff responsible for research and teaching matter. Professional autonomy ensures world-class tertiary education in New Zealand. It matters to staff because it is about their ability to meet the professional academic standards set by their peers and colleagues from around the world. It matters to students because staff who are at the cutting edge of our profession are ones who have access to leave – to complete research, learn the latest industry practices, network with professional colleagues – and who bring that knowledge back into the classroom. And all of this matters for New Zealand if we want to continue to have innovative university and polytechnic graduates.

The professionals who staff universities and polytechnics in New Zealand should stand alongside other professions in New Zealand – such as doctors and nurses, lawyers, primary and secondary teachers, accountants, and engineers. We, the public, charge each of these professions with maintaining the quality of their profession through bodies such as the nursing councils and the Law Society. Experts in each of these fields are the best judge of what is needed to maintain quality. And the professional autonomy of those who teach and research in New Zealand tertiary institutions should be respected in the same way.

Professional autonomy does not mean that individual teachers and researchers can do as we please. In fact, throughout our careers, our peers put us through rigorous evaluations. Any time an academic seeks funding for a new project we must submit our ideas for review by panels of our peers (including colleagues both from New Zealand and around the world). If new knowledge is to be shared with the international research community it is put through rigorous peer reviewing where colleagues examine the arguments and evidence backing up the new knowledge before it is published. And the programmes taught within universities undergo rigorous reviews where experts examine the syllabi, speak with students about the quality of teaching, look through the CVs of academics and how they connect their teaching and research, and examine the quality of marking carried out in the academic programme to make sure it is in line with best practice internationally.

Those of us working in tertiary education take great care to ensure our teaching and research meets international standards; and that we hold their colleagues to account for the quality of work they carry out.

It is professional autonomy which means New Zealand has world-class universities and high quality vocational education training. Just as doctors vet which of their colleagues get to stay in the profession and lawyers decide who can practice law, academics and teachers at universities and polytechnics are the best placed to judge the teaching and research work of our peers and to make sure we maintain high standards.

Academics don’t want to say who should win American Idol or who should win an OSCAR – we are happy to leave that to the experts in those fields. Likewise, ‘managers’ of the tertiary sector should trust the professionals they hire to continue to ensure the quality teaching and research in New Zealand.

– Sandra Grey, TEU

22 comments on “Academic quality under attack”

  1. Vicky32 1

    You’re absolutely right…
    Not everything is about ‘business’…

  2. ianmac 2

    Well. If all those working in the Tertiary area were put onto TNS (Tertiary National Standards), then we could see just where the problems lie and all those lecturers who underachieve can be taken aside and spanked. This would of course allow clever polititians to set the Standards and at last the taxpayers would rejoice as they would get just what they have been demanding.
    Sounds facetious? Just modelled on the actions so far of the National machine.

    • Ed 2.1

      Such actions are only valid for state-owned tertiary institutions, ianmac – if it is a private provider then of course they don’t need any standards . . .they can just pocket subsidies.

  3. tc 3

    In chatting to a tertiary employee not long after Sideshow gained the big chair for the best photo opp’s they reckoned the exodus had begun as unlike the bulk of the electorate the acedemics have intelligence and had more than an inkling of what was on the way….the knowledge wave goodbye.

  4. The generic managerial approach seems to encompass anything. It surely was a manager who sacked a favourite weather forecaster for making unrehearsed, unpaid comments about the weather. The learning institutions management are focussed on budgets and not the best thing for the entity. And the people in charge of budgets don’t really operate on any new ideas, they tend to hark back a way to say a century ago, except they use new technology. So they don’t have a receptive mind to wide learning it ends up vocationally-focussed with them.

  5. Rich 5

    The other thing that’ll happen is that we’ll catch the league table virus from Britain and America.

    At the moment, most courses are more or less open – if an undergrad’s qualified, they can go to Auckland, Vic, Massey or wherever. But that’s changing as NACT cut numbers, so you’ll find that the only students with the best grades will go to Auckland & Vic, while places out in the sticks like Massey and Lincoln will get the average undergrads.

    Academics might think this is good, because they’ll be working at the elite institutions, but it won’t work like that. There’ll be a points system, and it’ll mostly be cross-subject. So instead of (e.g.) Massey attracting smart life scientists, it’ll get the kids with Cs at undergrad level, and anyone staying there will have their career blighted.

  6. r0b 6

    Thanks for this post Sandra, and thanks to the TEU (of which I am a member) for the great work it does standing up for tertiary teaching and learning.

  7. Gosman 7

    What a surprise. Left wing academics upset at Government on being told they can’t get more taxpayer largesse.

    How about some of you go out and get a real job in the private sector?

    • Campbell Larsen 7.1

      Judging by your comments Gos you should have spent more time at school.

    • r0b 7.2

      Spoken with all your usual wisdom and insight Gosman.

      Tell me, what sort of “private sector” do you think there would be without an educated populace and workforce?  Fancy yourself as a peasant farmer do you?

    • “How about some of you go out and get a real job in the private sector?”

      Well, that’s certainly “deep, meaningful, and insightful”… *sighs*

      By the way, Gosman, I note that you posted that on Thursday, 25 August, at 10.41am. Shouldn’t you have been at work at that time? And if you were, what does your employer say about you blogging during work hours??

      • Gosman 7.3.1

        I’m not blogging. I am commenting on a blog post. As for what my empoyer thinks. They are happy enough with my performance to have extended my contract for a year recently. In the real world people’s performance is reflected in whether you get pay rises and/or work extensions. Unlike say the academic world which seems to not worry too much about whether someone’s job is economically necessary and when pay rises are woirked out on some arcane formula seemingly unrelated to performance.

        • Bored

          I did the contract renewals and pay adjustments recently: you left out one variable that also has a big impact…market conditions. Got a lot of push back from people who expected pay rises based upon always getting them, and had to explain that they were replacable at a lower cost. Thats the nature of the private sector market. Hard but true.

          Which brings me to the public sector and academics: how is it that the public servants pay only goes up? If there is pain why should they be exempt from sharing collectively in that pain? Is it fair that some retain pay rates and employment whilst others get made redundant?

  8. infused 8

    It’s funny, most of the people on talk back dont seem to agree with you.

    • lprent 8.1

      You’re referring to talkback as a source of informed opinion? My opinion of your opinions just dropped below its already low levels. Talkback is for morons who are incapable of touching a keyboard and getting out of broadcast media….

  9. David 9

    It seems to me that there are many instances where academics are woefully unprepared to manage or teach. If developing these skills were given half of the emphasis of developing a narrow range of research skills then there probably wouldn’t be a need for managers etc. The clear assumption is normally if you are a competent researcher then you can teach (or manage). When I hear the comment ‘if you can teach (or manage) then you can research’ I will be convinced we are making progress.

    • r0b 9.1

      Times are changing.  There’s certainly a lot more emphasis on new staff members learning to teach than there was a couple of decades ago.

  10. I believe that the folks who deliver the management services to a properly constituted University must take advice from its existing academics, and gain their consent, before hiring or firing anyone, or before making any other change to any matter which may affect its academic “core business”. The current Vice-Chancellor of the University of Auckland apparently believes otherwise. At Senate, he has recently made it clear that he believes that our university’s charter, and the laws of our country, do not allow him to take advice from Senate on any matter affecting our university’s academic standing or operation — if this matter may impinge, in any way, on how our university behaves as an employer of its staff.

    I sincerely hope my university can find a way through this impasse over the role of its academic Senate.

    I cannot see how any educational institution can maintain high academic standards, if it is managed without the advice and consent of its academics on all academic matters, especially including those which have implications to the University as an employer.

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