When downsizing means destroying our universities

Opinion: University job cuts highlight a funding hole which threatens education and the government's stated science goals, writes Professor Nicola Gaston.

Professor Nicola Gaston
Professor Nicola Gaston

Recent announcements of up to 260 job losses at Victoria University of Wellington come hot on the heels of similar announcements at the University of Otago.

A casual observer might be forgiven for being surprised: Minister of Education Jan Tinetti’s press release from the budget just two weeks ago talked up the “biggest increase in at least 20 years” to tertiary subsidies, in the face of “global inflationary pressures”. That certainly sounds like a meaningful amount, but it hasn’t moved the dial. So what gives?

My usual focus in looking at the budget is on science and research funding. The government has a strategy underway to modernise the sector – referred to as Te Ara Paerangi, or Future Pathways – and as part of it, has a commitment to raising government investment in R&D to 2% of GDP.

Let me be clear, this is not a politically difficult thing to do – the National Party has criticised the government for not living up to this commitment. The stumbling block appears to be, as per the Te Ara Paerangi White Paper, that MBIE, the responsible ministry, believes that “the RSI system is not well-placed to absorb the increased funding that is necessary to prepare us for the future.”

Apparently we don’t have the necessary “capacity” to deliver on the research that the government would like us to do. That’s a thought to keep in mind when redundancies are announced.

The government has declared that it will not fill the funding hole responsible for current redundancies.

A second issue outlined in Te Ara Paerangi is that the sector is “fragmented” – that universities and Crown Research Institutes compete with each other rather than cooperating.

I have some time for this point of view, and for the consequent investment in the Wellington Science City project that plans to bring CRIs and VUW together around hubs of strategically important science – think climate change, health, and advanced manufacturing technologies – in order to incentivise greater cooperation.

CRIs exist in law for the benefit of New Zealand, so that we have the necessary research capacity to address issues of national importance – the work of ESR through the Covid pandemic being a great example.

But the thing is, public universities exist in law for the exact same reasons, and even underpin the capacity of our CRIs through education and training. However “fragmented” the research sector itself may be, this fragmentation is only even more apparent when it comes to the agencies and ministries that fund us.

The Ministry of Education; Business, Innovation and Employment; the Tertiary Education Commission; the Royal Society Te Apārangi… those are only the most obvious, with a number of ministers responsible.

I spell this all out in an effort to explain how we have ended up in the ridiculous situation we are currently in. Where government has:

  • a press release lauding the “biggest increase in at least 20 years” to tertiary subsidies ($521 million over 4 years);
  • $355 million of funding reallocated in the same year away from tertiary education because student numbers are down;
  • a policy of increasing research expenditure significantly on the basis of economic strategy, but refuses to distribute the funding due to concerns about the human “capacity” to do the work;
  • announced major investment in a “Wellington Science City”;
  • declared that it will not fill the funding hole responsible for current redundancies.

Redundancy offers are likely to have staff queueing to take them up: if you don’t get on the life-raft you are left on a sinking ship.

Let me be clear that when we are talking about redundancies, we are not just talking about job losses. The proposals at VUW affect programmes across the humanities and the sciences. Modern languages. Chemistry and Physics.

I’m going to comment in more detail about the sciences – as a former staff member in the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences and the co-director of the national-scale MacDiarmid Institute, which they host – but I want to first state directly that I am not arguing for science vs the arts here. The whole university matters; I’m just starting with what I know.

The suggested cuts in the science faculty alone, if evenly distributed across the five programmes affected, would result in the loss of something like half the academic staff in each of Chemistry and Physics.

This is not an actual possible choice. When departments no longer have the critical mass to sustain a full teaching programme in a given discipline – when you can no longer teach a recognised major – student numbers will continue to fall. There is no path back to viability; we have seen this attrition elsewhere, in particular in the scientific disciplines at Massey over the last decade.

In the face of this knowledge, redundancy offers are likely to have staff queueing to take them up: if you don’t get on the life-raft you are left on a sinking ship.

What does a science city look like, in the absence of an institution that teaches Chemistry and Physics?

How will MBIE ever get the capacity they are looking for in the research sector, needed to bring research investment up to the government’s own strategic target, when a single vice-chancellor can make a decision undermining our national capability this easily?

The programmes identified as “in scope” for redundancies at VUW are first and foremost on that list because of their low student-related income (that being where the government funding hole is), relative to staffing levels.

The flip side of departments with low student:staff ratios, however, is that so many staff are employable because of the high proportion of contestable research income they reliably attract.

Research grants via MBIE, Marsden grants via the Royal Society Te Apārangi, Centre of Research Excellence funding through the TEC. But these contributions are not easily weighed up across the whole university; the fragmentation of funding sources I mentioned earlier makes this hard.

University funding, as a consequence, is not just a decision for the Minster of Education: the impacts are too broad. I am currently envisioning the report I would need to write for the RSTA and the TEC next year if these proposals go through, explaining that a full 30% of the research programme of the MacDiarmid Institute, as a Centre of Research Excellence, will no longer be deliverable. We do research on a national scale, collaboratively, as that is what we are funded to do. These cuts will render so much of that work for nothing.

Remember that $450 million investment in the Wellington Science City, announced two weeks ago? What does a science city look like, in the absence of an institution that teaches Chemistry and Physics?

So if the government remains unwilling to fill the current funding hole I would argue they need to be asked directly: which one of our universities would you like to cut?

Should vice-chancellors be able to make unilateral decisions that affect the research strategy and capability of Aotearoa to this extent? I would say no; anyone at MBIE invested in the success of the Te Ara Paerangi project should also say no.

And yet there does not seem to be any way out of this hole for the VUW vice-chancellor; nor for his current counterpart at Otago. Or not a way out that they can navigate individually, anyway.

Our university leaders need to sit down as a group with the minister of education and advocate as a collective for the funding that the sector needs. I fear that their reluctance to do this to date has been due to an aversion to having governmental interference in university operations, and up to a point that is a reasonable concern.

But the current funding hole is such that operations are being affected in a way that has nothing to do with good planning, strategic direction, or the ability of each university to serve its local communities. This needs to be recognised and if the funding hole is not adequately filled, then changes to university offerings – which amount to changes to our national research capability – need to be undertaken with thought, and coordination, and transparent consultation.

It would be preferable to cut whole programmes than to take what in my opinion is the dishonest path of pretending that you are salvaging something viable, when you are not. Would you rather have Chemistry or Physics kept at VUW?

But this argument only shifts the problem to a higher level. The Education Act is specific that a University must both have a “wide diversity of teaching and research” and “their research and teaching are closely interdependent and most of their teaching is done by people who are active in advancing knowledge”.

So while each of our universities can usefully specialise in ways that serve their local communities, that diversity requires a balance: science and the arts. Physics and French.

Even more problematically, any attempt to keep research-only staff who bring in MBIE, Marsden and commercial funding in disciplines where there is no viable teaching programme will undermine the status of the university itself. This is likely to be attempted as a short-term strategy, but there should be no doubt: job losses will result in further loss of funding from these other sources in future.

So if the government remains unwilling to fill the current funding hole I would argue they need to be asked directly: which one of our universities would you like to cut?

This article is republished with the permission of The Spinoff.

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