Thursday, 4 June 2009

the real world

a few weeks ago, i attended a seminar at the university of waikato, where i was privileged enough to hear prof jane kelsey speak. she was particularly inspiring because she spoke immediately after mr roger kerr of the business round table, and so nicely but easily refuted his rather bizarre claims (such as that nz businesses were over-regulated, and the current global economic crisis showed that less regulation was needed - no, i'm not kidding, that's what he said).

one of the points she made was about the money available to the BRT to carry out research, and prepare reports. these reports were made available to ministers, to government departments at many levels, and to the media. in this way, the BRT are able to influence thinking in a way that not many others are able to do.

it was up to academia, she maintained, to provide the research and the counter to these views and to refute the claims made by the BRT. of course she's hardly an independent voice, given that she's an academic herself so would have personal interest in seeing a strong academic sector. she was, however, speaking to law students to encourage their activism. and besides that, she does have a point.

academics are supposed to be independent from the government of the day in terms of what they research and how they disseminate that research. a strong academic sector should ensure that knowledge is not political nor biased towards, for example, the business sector or the powerful in society. our academics should be shining the light on issues that otherwise would not get any attention.

it's hardly surprising that many right-wingers seek to discredit the academic sector and weaken the value of that independent voice. we have the "ivory tower" used as an insult to show that the academic is somehow disconnected from the "real world", as if universities and academics exist in some parallel universe. and as if academics never belong to families, never go shopping, never have to worry about job security, never partake in all the other activities that are somehow defined as "real world".

then there is the whole attack on "book-learning" which we saw particularly in the campaign against mr obama (and also from what i understand in the 2000 campaign against al gore). even though mr bush did actually have a degree, it was the democratic presidential candidates that were being attacked for having knowledge and an education that supposedly made them different to and disconnected from "real people" - the latter being defined as joe sixpack.

and of course labour party MPs here are similarly attacked, for being a bunch of teachers and academics. as if learning is a bad thing. as if education makes you less able to perform well in a leadership role. as well as being an attack on a political party and on individual MPs, it's also an attack on academia that serves to make the academic voice less valuable, and less able to challenge right-wing thinking.

but the best way to attack the academic sector is to cut back the funding. this release on the nz vice-chancellors' committee website sums up concerns arising from last week's budget:

"The Government has withdrawn funding already committed to keeping academic salaries at levels which are barely competitive in an international market. This move will make it difficult for universities to retain existing academic staff at a time when they are facing increasing student numbers due to the economic recession.

“Further, the Government has made an explicit statement that no provision has been made for growth in university enrolment. The number of unfunded students in the system this year will continue to grow in 2010 and beyond in a compound effect and this can only result in increasing numbers of prospective students being turned away, potentially to join the dole queue.

“Universities are seriously questioning whether the Government appreciates the impact this Budget will have on universities and their ability to supply the skilled professionals the country needs for economic recovery. The Budget will also deny opportunities to a significant cohort of the generation about to enter tertiary education."

when our universities have uncompetitive salaries and there are too few staff to cater for the students attending, the sector will surely be weakened. it will be less able to provide that independent information that is crucial to a democracy. and we will all suffer because of it.


katy said...

hear hear! The AUS website used to contain a statement (not sure if it has migrated) that 60% of academic appointments in NZ are international. This is a key way that we remain connected to the world.

Hugh said...

Interesting post Anjum but I think a couple of things need to be noted.

Firstly it's by no means certain that academics will always produce research that conflicts with the research done by the BRT and other groups.

Secondly, while academics do indeed do their shopping, commute to work and look after their kids (if they have them) like everybody else, it's also undisputably true that they do so while enjoying wages and job security that are significantly higher than that of the average New Zealander. So in at least a sense the 'ivory tower' argument does hold water. (It's much the same reason that the BRT members, who also do their shopping etc, can't claim to be representative of the average person, much as they might try)

stargazer said...

of course academics won't always conflict with the BRT - it's quite possible that the BRT come out with something sane and rational once in a while. the point is that they should be independent.

as for job security, i disagree. i worked at a university for 4 years back in the early 90s, and tenure had stopped back then. they brought in performance measures around publication, and also were not loathe to use bad student evaluations to oust staff. i don't think university staff these days have any greater security than anyone else. i have several friends working as lecturers, and almost all departments are understaffed and overworked. the science and social science schools have shed staff like anything, and i haven't seen any that have been on a consistent growth path. so i'm not sure where you get this notion of "higher" job security. and wages in nz haven't been competitive on the international market for quite a while.

katy said...

Basically there is a two-tier system in the US which is similar to what we are starting to see in NZ where senior academic posts are pretty good and secure (stargazer, would you say that senior academics such as Professors would face the same situation you describe??), however, a lot of work in the institution is done by people on crappy wages. In the US they call them Adjuncts, this is different to how we would use the term in unis here and they often work across different institutions.

However, I have to point out that as far as salaries go, even for very senior posts they are not that flash compared to what one might earn in the private sector after 10 years of education:

katy said...

As an addendum to the post above, the people in NZ universities who earn the highest salaries are not people carrying out research (administrators etc). In the US the people on the highest salary are sometimes the coaches...

stargazer said...

katy, i wouldn't say a professor's job is secure if rolls are falling. job security depends pretty much on how many students the institution can attract which partly depends on the quality of the institutions, partly on market conditions, and partly how we value particular types of education as a society. i don't know of professors who are employed on a "research only" basis, although they may exist. in which case, job security depends on them bidding for research funding from various funding organisations (eg marsden, FRST etc) and being successful. that process is quite stressful & not one which engenders a feeling of security!

as for salaries, if i recall correctly, they stopped being competitive at about the time that the power to set university staff salaries was taken away from the higher salaries commission.

katy said...

stargazer, I am not sure about this, it would be interesting to hear from a senior academic as to how the situation feels to those in it. Certainly, as I understand it, job security for confirmed academic staff is probably better than for most of us, though not all university staff are confirmation path. [While it remains in place], the current funding model, central to which is the PBRF exercise, is encouraging.

Hugh said...

of course academics won't always conflict with the BRT - it's quite possible that the BRT come out with something sane and rational once in a while.

Or more likely, academics will come up with something that isn't sane or rational.

Perhaps I'm incorrect about job security, but I notice nobody has really addressed my point about wages. Perhaps university salaries aren't 'competitive' in an international sense, but I was actually comparing them, not to the salaries of international academics, but to other New Zealanders.

The average wage in New Zealand is $35k. Most academics earn more than that. I think it's important not to lose sight of that fact, not least because it's the same criticism that's levelled at the BRT (not to the same degree, admittedly).

Anonymous said...

I'm a reasonably senior tenured academic at a large university, so I can give my two cent's worth.

Katy is correct in saying that there are two tiers of academics: there are those who have been continued (and have tenure) and those that are on short term fixed employment contracts. (Tenure doesn't mean that you can't be fired, but it is rare for tenured people to be fired - unless there is a downsizing in a faculty due to low student numbers.)

While people on short term fixed contracts do do a lot of work, so do the majority of tenured staff. I know of very few people who work a 40 hour week, 60 hours is more like it. The only time I take a holiday is for a week or so at Christmas. If one more person thinks/assumes that I'm on holiday just because there are no lectures on I will scream.

The only real difference between the tiers is job security, and, of course, pay. I agree that for the pay, however, the short term fixed contractors are being abused and the abuse is getting worse. But blame the government in large part for that for refusing to better fund unversities and then slapping on the fee maxima

Also, as far as pay goes, academics for the hours, responsibility and years of education are not paid that much. And pay doesn't rise expodentially the higher you go up the ladder. Indeed a professor's minimum pay rate (and around 5% of academics are professors, at least in my institution) is $131,000 compared to starting lecturer at the bottom of $69,000. Yes $131,000 looks a lot, but in the public sector (read governmental departments) senior managers earn twice that with no need to work at nights and in the weekends. And as noted above, only around 5% are on that rate, most people are on considerably less.

katy said...

Hi anon,

Thanks for your comments, it is really interesting to get the perspective of someone working at a senior level within a NZ university on this. I am sorry, I certainly did not mean to imply that senior academics are swanning off to conferences while the hard yards are put in by harassed junior staff, my apologies if that is what came through.

I have to agree that for the level of expertise required to move into an academic post that the salaries are too low and not realistic in terms of the labour market. I believe that this is a particular problem in certain disciplines where there is international scarcity (such as branches of medicine) or strong competition (such as engineering). It is foolish and shortsighted not to acknowledge the social benefit of research carried out in our universities and to fund them adequately and offer decent salaries!

Hugh, there was an article on this website recently about an ultrasound that had been misread, as a result of which a woman unnecesarily had an abortion. Skill shortages such as these are a result of the underfunding of universities and the inability to offer competitive salaries.

Hugh said...

Katy, where did I say that I think academics are paid too much?

katy said...

Hi Hugh, I was responding to your point about the disparity between the average NZ salary and NZ academic salaries.

Hugh said...

Katy, my point isn't that it's somehow too high or that academics don't deserve the pay they get. It's simply that by being paid that much, no matter how deserving, they are made separate from society in a fairly important way. In my opinion it's the only way the 'ivory tower' criticism is true, although it is IMO a pretty important part of it.

Not that this is unique to academics; doctors, lawyers and many other professions earn more than the average wage. This doesn't mean they shouldn't be allowed to have their say, but it is important to acknowledge privilege where it exists, and in my opinion this is a fairly significant privilege.

katy said...

Hi Hugh, thanks for that, I understood that was what you meant.

I have to say that I don't agree with your argument that the salary of academics is such that it creates a barrier between academics and people working in the "real world". As discussed earlier, only 5% of academics are on the top pay rates. As the payscales posted earlier show(, the most a lecturer in NZ can earn is around $77,000, and the starting rate is $59,000-64,000. Sure, I live and work in central Auckland so maybe this skews my perspective but even among my friends and family in the provinces, it is not so difficult to think of people in professional occupations, public service roles and trades earning this kind of wage. This may be something that we will continue to disagree on.

Anonymous said...

Misleading just to look at what a person makes, depends on the household income. I remember years ago at morning tea when I was a very junior lecturer talking about buying a new house. A professor nearly fell off his chair when I said how much we were looking to pay for a house, think it was just over $600,000. He said "how can you afford that!" Thinking about it later, yes he was on a much higher income, but he had a child and a wife who didn't work to support, whereas both my partner and I worked and between us we were both probably earning as much as he was and without a child/ren to support.

Also, I've worked many a minimum wage job both before and during university. And during university I paid for all my on fees plus accomodatoin etc by working 30+ hours a week, so I reject any assertion that academics are seperate from society. Indeed it is the academics and others from "privilaged" positions that normally speak out on behelf of those who are less fortunate, often while those on the average wage are planning their next trip to Australia/Fiji etc for the holidays.

Hugh said...

Well, if we feel that a group being wealthier than the average doesn't mark them out as privileged, what's our problem with the BRT again? Is it because the degree of wealth is so great? Or do we have no problem with a bunch of millionaires calling themselves the voice of ordinary New Zealanders?

stargazer said...

for me, it's because they have are not a disinterested party. a lot of the policy and the bent of their research has the aim and/or effect of privileging and improving the conditions of their members, often at the cost of the rest of society.

in that sense, academics who are properly funded for research by geovernment with no strings attached as to the outcomes of that research are much more likely to produce something that is independent and of benefit to society as a whole. they would also consider areas that the BRT just wouldn't consider, because the latter would see that area adversly impacting on, for example, profits or "ease of doing business" etc. in fact, just go back to my original post which explains it more fully.

the only area where academics would have a significant conflict of interest would be research on tertiary institutions or the academic sector if you will.