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