The BulletinJune 23, 2023

A traumatic time for tertiary education


The severity of the job cuts at universities and polytechs has stunned staff and students alike, writes Catherine McGregor in this excerpt from The Bulletin, The Spinoff’s morning news round-up. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.

An abundance of redundancies

It’s been a horrible month to be employed in tertiary education, where jobs are under threat almost everywhere you look. Around 400 of them, mostly in middle management, are being culled at Te Pūkenga, the national polytechnic. Otago University is mooting significant cuts to its languages and cultures departments, and a plan for voluntary redundancies across all faculties is expected to be announced next week; sources have told Stuff there are “over a dozen separate reviews looking at cost-savings across the university”. Meanwhile Victoria University of Wellington (VUW) is proposing cutting 229 full-time equivalent roles across a wide swath of courses, including the disestablishment of entire programmes such as secondary teaching and geophysics. The Spinoff has a full rundown of all the courses under threat here.

Claims of a looming disaster for New Zealand academia

Teaching staff, management and students have all reacted with shock and fury. Victoria geophysicist Dr Finn Illsley-Kemp tells the Herald that “cutting [New Zealand’s] capability in such an obviously crucial area of future resilience in this country, and in this city” is hard to fathom. VUW lecturer James Wenley says the deep cuts to the theatre programme will “undo over 20 years of growth overnight” while Wellington theatre maker and former VUW student Emma Maguire asks: “To those who wrote decades’ worth of think pieces crying that Shakespeare was being cancelled last year due to one role being lost by a reallocation of funds – where is your rage now?” At Te Pūkenga, chronic tutor shortages are already creating “a combative and toxic environment”, student Elizabeth Engledow tells The Spinoff. Down south, Otago University Students Association president Quintin Jane says the government needs to “remember how central the university is to Dunedin; to fail the university is to fail the city”.

Where have all the students gone?

The job losses are the result of dramatic drops in enrolments, “likely related to sub-optimal student experiences during the pandemic, and perhaps the relatively strong job market,” writes Auckland University’s Nicola Gaston in a Conversation piece about the cuts’ impact on academic research. Victoria University’s total enrolments at the start of this academic year were down 12.1%​ compared to last year, leaving a $15 million hole in its revenue. Otago’s enrolments dropped only 0.9% – but the university had been forecasting growth of 4.9%, creating a whopping $60 million budget deficit. As of April, there was an “overall drop in enrolments at the country’s eight universities of around 3%”, reports Stuff’s Hamish McNeilly. “Enrolments were up at just three – Waikato, Canterbury and Lincoln.” Education minister Jan Tinetti says universities “have to adjust” (paywalled), adding that “changing what they teach and how they are organised is not unprecedented.”

UK universities suffering too

Budget cuts and redundancies aren’t just bedevilling the NZ tertiary sector. In the UK, the University of East Anglia is cutting 113 jobs after reporting a 16% drop in enrolments and a £30m (NZ$62m) budget deficit. The University of Brighton is cutting 110 jobs; Birkbeck, University of London is culling 140; and one third of England’s universities are operating at a deficit.

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