The current funding crisis in New Zealand universities has not happened in a vacuum. It is a byproduct of the neoliberal “reforms” introduced here in the 1980s and which have affected every aspect of university work.
Nor is this confined to New Zealand. The stress on corporate capitalism, adoption of business practices, and prioritisation of economic goals over all others has transformed higher education in the western world.
We see this time and again when universities cite financial losses and implement staff cuts. This has many consequences, including the exploitation of unpaid labour by casual staff. Submissions to the Australian Senate Select Committee on Job Security suggested underpayment of casual teaching staff in Australian universities is rampant.
The same applies in New Zealand, but the problem is likely worse than we know, with precarious workers unlikely to complain about their working conditions for fear of compromising future employment prospects.
Full-time staff are struggling too. Intensification of workloads, job insecurity amidst seemingly constant restructures, pressures to obtain competitive external funding, research excellence and student outcome targets, and toxic work environments are all threats to staff wellbeing.
To understand how university workers experience these realities of the modern university, our current project aims to capture their voices and stories. And those stories make for a depressing read.
To build empathy and understanding between workers with different experiences – precarious and permanent, faculty and professional staff, workers with disability and so on – we shared their anonymised posts on our open online site, Working in the Modern University.
In their stories, we hear about how the intensification of casual workloads leads to forced choices between poor quality teaching or working unpaid hours. We hear how staff feel trapped in a cycle of exhaustion, futility, guilt and hopelessness.
Some describe how precarious life has become, either in or on the edge of poverty, constantly managing insecurity for little financial or personal reward. And we hear of people feeling “battered and broken”, of “constantly drowning”, and of feeling complicit in creating a “caricature of education”.
Reading these stories is hard. They speak of increased desperation, grief for a system that could be so much more, and a loss of hope from staff who also see this reflected in their students.
Without rapid and real change, we fear a future where the university’s role of nurturing critical thinkers is vastly diminished. And where research on and with marginalised people and ideas is replaced by sanitised research linked to economic priorities.
That would mean the closure of one of the few places left where “noisy conversations” about democracy and political alternatives can take place.
The public good
The shift to seeing students as customers or clients – on the pathway to becoming “job-ready graduates” – has also shifted focus away from developing critical thinking skills and towards vocational training, pastoral care and keeping clients happy. One contributor wrote of:
the reinvention of the university as a place to train people for a capitalist workforce instead of developing their intellectual and creative potential more holistically.
This is unfortunate for students, who pay dearly for their education but receive a “less than inspiring educational experience”. As another wrote:
Students expect to study full-time and achieve good grades while working full-time because the neoliberal complex implies this is possible. Meanwhile, student-to-teaching-staff ratios grow amidst bulging workloads and […] student feedback on our performance can make or break us.
Knowledge is affected too. Staff are often on the receiving end of student complaints when topic material is complex or grades don’t match expectations. This deters teaching that challenges, develops critical thinking, or requires student engagement.
Similarly, research priorities have shifted. Universities no longer prioritise academics using their expertise to innovate and investigate for the public good. Instead, they are pressured to pursue externally-funded research, tailored to suit the appetite of a government or prevailing public opinion.
We have also seen a rise of the “subcontract model”, where “lead” researchers no longer create the research products they “sell”, but rely on casual and fixed-term research assistants who are often under-acknowledged.
Funding for critical thinking
We need to see a return to the idea of funding education as a public good in and of itself (granted, a radical idea under neoliberalism). Alongside this we need to separate education from current culture wars and recognise the value of arts, humanities and social sciences.
It’s no accident that the focus of frequent cuts by corporate-minded universities is on disciplines that teach critical thinking skills. While this may be partly due to declining student numbers, there’s certainly a case to be made that it reflects government priorities and rhetoric around “instrumentalised” education.
Academics are not short of ideas about the future of higher education, from the practical to the idealistic. The proliferation of books, papers and conferences on the subject attests to this. Universities would do well to heed their own experts on this critical issue.