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New Zealand universities and recruitment will suffer badly from the lack of job security for academics, writes Julie Cupples.
We are seeing the rapid erosion of tenure, or legalised job security, in universities across the English-speaking world. The argument in favour of tenure is that it protects academic freedom, enabling academics to speak on controversial issues and criticise those in power, so it is a benefit to wider society and not just to the tenured academic. The argument against tenure is that universities need to be able to respond to changing government priorities and changes in student demand and maintain academic productivity. While legal tenure of the kind enjoyed by US and Canadian academics disappeared a long time ago, de facto tenure disappeared only in the last decade in New Zealand.
I recently signed a petition to be sent to the vice-chancellor of the University of Otago asking them not to lay off Jacqui Leckie, a leading scholar of Pacific anthropology. According to the petition, Prof Leckie has made substantial contributions to knowledge and to the everyday running of the university. In 2016, the New Zealand media reported on at least four "change proposals", as they are euphemistically termed — the cuts to humanities at Otago, to languages at Victoria, to education at Waikato and to programmes at Lincoln.
The non-academic population largely meets such job losses with indifference. Such indifference results from New Zealand’s entrenched anti-intellectualism, along with a sense academics should have the same working conditions as everyone else. I left my employment at a New Zealand university at the end of 2012 as a consequence of a seemingly interminable flurry of "change proposals" that were cutting and transforming the university in ways I and many others could no longer abide.
One of the main discursive mechanisms some New Zealand universities use to recruit academic talent is the concept of "lifestyle". The message is that, despite its relative geographic isolation, New Zealand is a great place to bring up kids, buy a home, drink coffee, and engage in outdoor pursuits in some of the most stunning scenery in the world.
The effective lack of tenure complicates that message. And it is New Zealand’s geography that makes it even more serious. Academic redundancies happen elsewhere in the world, and for those affected can be devastating. This practice undermines academic freedom as those not targeted start to keep their heads down, in case they are targeted next time. It also lowers morale, weakens collegiality, induces a climate of fear and increases the likelihood of stress and mental illness. Those with mobility who are not constrained by family commitments and the like move on to other institutions. Such an environment isn’t good for students or for knowledge production.
It is, however, arguably much more serious in New Zealand precisely because of the country’s geographic isolation. The fact is many academics buy into the lifestyle argument. These academics don’t just provide labour while they are here, but also meet their life partners, get married, buy houses, have kids, and become involved in their communities. While enjoying the lifestyle, you might become an internationally renowned, productive and collegial academic. And then suddenly you find yourself mid-career and unemployed but not easily able to move because of commitments such as those mentioned above.
What might have seemed like a good move when you took the job could lead not only to heartache but the premature termination of your career. Given there are only eight universities in New Zealand, if you lose your job, the next nearest might be in Brisbane or Suva or Singapore. So what do you do when you have a partner with a job, kids in high school, and important social and community networks? Such stories circulate rapidly through international academic networks and are likely to deter people from coming here to work in the first place. New Zealand universities thus become less desirable places not only for those with no ties here but also for Kiwis who might reconsider giving up more secure academic positions elsewhere to return home.
New Zealand universities that until now have pulled their weight in international rankings despite their geographic isolation will cease to do so. I write these words as many British academics are lamenting the effects Brexit is having on our universities.
Almost a third of academic positions in British universities are held by EU citizens who face an uncertain future, as Teresa May refuses to confirm they will be allowed to stay post-Brexit. Even before Britain leaves the EU and accelerates the departure of many leading academics, Brexit has already damaged the reputation of British universities. If the lack of job security is serious for top-ranking British universities in the populated part of the world, then it is catastrophic for New Zealand institutions that are far more reliant on international labour. If tenure were restored, New Zealand universities could recruit and retain some of the best international scholars in the world.
Because after all the "lifestyle" can otherwise be very nice here.
- Julie Cupples is a reader in human geography and co-director of the Global Development Academy at the University of Edinburgh. She is at present a visiting scholar and adjunct professor of media studies at Victoria University, Wellington. She has been an associate professor in human geography and cultural studies at the University of Canterbury.