Just let me do my job, boss

"Managerialism" is a blight in New Zealand universities and polytechnics, writes Stephen Day, of the Tertiary Education Union.

One of the of challenges working for an organisation representing academics is that they are fluent and use big words.

So when we at the Tertiary Education Union have a series of employment disputes that have a common theme running through them, some of our more eloquent union members want to describe the problem as managerialism.

Because, you see, this is what is happening.

Across the country, we at TEU are struggling in employment negotiations with employers at universities, polytechnics and wananga because those employers want to have more and more control over what their employees do.

And, while I want to describe that as "bossiness", my more learned friends are rightly calling it by its true name, managerialism.

So, at the universities of Auckland and Victoria we see disputes between managers and the academic community over who should be able to make decisions about how people do their job and about what is being taught.

At many polytechnics, including Christchurch and Weltec, we see disputes between managers and their academic community over how long academics should work, how they should use their leave, and how they should do their job.

None of these disputes is primarily about money. I believe, in fact, that over the last three years our members have been relatively unconcerned about money and mindful of doing their bit in the global financial crisis. Mostly they enjoy their jobs, rightly believe they have been doing a good job, and, as professionals, want to be left to keep doing it the way they know how.

Clearly, the managers at tertiary institutions are feeling the same sort of micromanagement pressure from government that academics feel from their institutions.

The State Services Commission, the Tertiary Education Commission and the Ministry of Education all have their tape measures and scales out to measure up any polytechnic, university or wananga in which they can get a foot.

So, with government bureaucracy wanting to measure anything that stands still, the tertiary institutions have little choice but to pass the measuring and micromanaging craze on down the line.

The next step will inevitably be that tertiary education staff feel the pressure to constantly measure, rank, and categorise their students.

Now there is nothing wrong with measuring, assessing and categorising in education. All good education, even informal education, has an underpinning of good assessment. But there is a difference between measuring against predetermined, quantifiable boxes, and measuring the way individuals have expanded their learning in new and unpredictable ways.

Once we tell people they have to spend their time fitting into boxes, we start to lose the very "out of the box" thinking that defines great academic scholarship.

We do not expect rugby coaches to pick players simply because they have a high ratio of successful kicks to touch or tackles made. We also want them to look for the exciting unpredictable things players can do, the way they interact with and inspire their team-mates, and the way they pick themselves up off the ground when something does not go well. We want the same values within our education communities, just with less mud.

It is scary to trust people to do something by themselves without looking over their shoulders and ticking boxes. But it is also the essence of being part of a professional community.

For clear, jargon-free writing we try our best to run a red pen through all the "-isms" in our publications and pronouncements. But sometimes an "-ism" is the best way to describe the problem. As an education community, we need to run a red pen through managerialism, not because of its wordiness, but because of its pettiness.


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