Corporate culture, commercialisation driving university decision making

The University of Otago’s signature clock tower. Photos: ODT
The University of Otago’s signature clock tower. Photos: ODT
Concerned about morale at the University of Otago following recent staff restructuring,  Kevin Clements and Peter Matheson say it’s time to remember the university’s  core functions of teaching, research  and  service depend on  a  highly motivated  workforce.

The University of Otago is far more  than  a  research  centre,  a  teaching  institution and   a  key driver  of  innovation and  economic  prosperity.  It is also an  identity marker,  an  alma  mater, a  nourishing mother, it is our  turangawaewae.   When alumni, faculty and students  return  from abroad  the  clock tower tells them  that  they  are  back home, and  it  feels  good.  Or it  used  to.

No more, alas, no more! Something  has  gone  wrong,  badly wrong.   It is true that the  campus  has  never  looked  so  attractive.   It  is  lovely   to  walk through of an evening.   The  Highlanders carry  the  university  crest  through  the  country  and  beyond.   And  -giving  credit  where  it is  due -  the  achievements  of brilliant university  researchers  figure  almost  daily  in  the  media.

Yet, right  across  the board,   faculty members and professional staff are reeling from the university’s  restructuring and reorganisation. Faculty and administrators  have been facing   stress  and  uncertainty  generated  by years  of  waiting  as  restructuring   takes  place - Der  Ton macht  die Musik, as the  Germans  say. Whole departments in the sciences division have had to reapply for their  positions. The  heartless  style  in which  the  changes  are  orchestrated  makes   the human  being  at  the  centre of  them  feel like a dispensable  commodity. How  can  one  expect scholarly and  pedagogical  creativity  to flourish  in an atmosphere like  this?

For some areas, such as the College of Education, one review has followed another and  the  Support  Services Review has had  administrative  staff  enduring slow torment over three long years.  Right across the campus, different divisions have been restructured for a variety of reasons.

Staff and students protest against cuts to support staff at the university last year.
Staff and students protest against cuts to support staff at the university last year.

The Humanities Division, for example, was told initially that restructuring was driven by falling rolls and a $12 million hole in the divisional budget.  Just   last week, however, the University Council, with impeccable timing, announced that student enrolment was up and   university revenues were in surplus  by about the same amount as the Humanities Division deficit.  This could be a timing issue  created by  delayed but inevitable  maintenance and capital work. Or it could signal that the university’s fortunes   have turned. The point is, however, that   as  the university expands and contracts, surpluses and burdens should be shared.

The  restructuring  has  led  administrative  staff  to desert in droves,  taking redundancy payments or early retirement. The loss of centre managers/administrators and their replacement by  a  more centralised and remote middle  management is resulting in an enormous  loss of  institutional  memory across all divisions.  Departments are not only losing  administrators with decades  of experience  but  risk  losing    something of their departmental identity and humanity as well. Most students, for example, go to the administrators for advice about enrolment, pastoral care and support, critical continuity and a sense of belonging.  These human faces are being lost to more anonymous central administrators.  Most student inquiries regarding courses, enrolments, technology, fees, or scholarships, for example, will   be dealt with in future by a call centre and a database of ‘‘best fit’’ responses.  

This depersonalisation is  also evident in the   library which  has been described as  ‘‘a  sterile and uninviting wasteland’’.  There appears to be  more interest in creating  electronic study space for students than spaces for books or browsing.  Will we follow the experience of the University of Auckland where  specialist libraries have already been closed?

No-one  denies  that there  has been  government  underfunding of the university sector   over  decades. It’s obvious, too,  that  the  tertiary sphere is  not  immune  to  the pressures  of  electronic  change.  Nor  is  anything  going  to be helped  by personalising   matters, and  scapegoating individual decision-makers who  are  fine people  trying to manage in challenging circumstances. The  problems  lie  much  deeper.

As  elsewhere in  New Zealand  society, corporate  culture and commercialisation  are   driving  university  decision making. Gone are the enlightenment values  that placed a high premium on a safe, nurturing space for a wide range of  different types of academics to pursue knowledge, truth, and wisdom. University promotion and tenure mechanisms, not to mention the PBRF assessment exercise,  demand  that academics  quantify all that they do, sometimes several times each year.

Academics  have become intellectual proletarians. Like workers on a production line, they are being asked   to ensure the ongoing viability and  profitability of their departments and the wider university.  If this  involves axing unpopular programmes so be it! If it  is driven by short-term challenges rather than long-term values so be it!

Why is  all this  happening? The  rationale  for   these surgical measures  is  that academic  staff will  have  more  time  for  their work. Secondly, that  support staff, (i.e. those fortunate enough to remain, or who have not  been demoted) will have clearer  career pathways. Thirdly,  that  centralised  processes  will  meet the needs of what is  a  very  diverse  university, and  finally  that  student ‘‘experience’’ will be enhanced. It is not at all clear that the current restructuring will deliver these promises and the administration should be  monitored and held to account in relation to them.

Efficiency  should not mean depersonalisation. We are  in danger of forgetting that a university is made up of people  and  that  the  core  functions  of   teaching, research and  service depend on a highly motivated  work force. The widespread uncertainty  and  the powerlessness that staff are experiencing at the moment are totally inimical to the development of  a nurturing academic  community.

Academic  leadership  and vision is at a premium. It would be  good to open up a  wider public debate about the negative impacts of corporate  culture  and  commercialisation  on university  decision making in general and the quality of Otago university life in particular. The neo-liberal  agenda  is  being  challenged in this  country  and beyond.

New Zealand  itself,  is  changing  fast as is the rest of the world. Government  is beginning to  move away from narrow cost-benefit considerations to larger  criteria of  what drives human wellbeing and the common good. Our university leaders need to tell us how their vision  for the university coheres  with these  exciting  new humane and caring perspectives. They also need to tell us what they intend doing to restore the morale and heart of the campus when the restructuring is complete.

- Professor Kevin  Clements is the chair and foundation director for the  National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago. The Rev Dr Peter Matheson is a historian and theologian and an honorary fellow in the University of Otago’s department of theology and religious studies.

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