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Tertiary Train-Wreck - Unitec Design

Tertiary Train-Wreck

Since the social reforms of the 1980s, tertiary education institutions have engaged constantly in steady rounds of restructuring. One of the outcomes is to dismiss academic staff, and that's what Unitec management is doing to 50 academic staff in the Department of Design and Visual Arts.

Unitec plans to replace these staff with industry providers in part-time and itinerant positions. The remaining 17 staff will be turned into "managers," charged with delivering up to $30,000 per year from industry.

Consider what will be lost. Unitec will lose highly experienced and qualified staff, skilled in academic, teaching and professional settings. It will lose a swathe of institutional knowledge. It will lose a host of institutional investment: Unitec has rightly invested in higher qualifications and professional development for its staff. It will lose a significant sector of its research culture, its scholarship, its critical thinking. It will lose institutional integrity. As a result, it will lose reputation and standing as a leading school of design, greatly respected throughout the country. To compound the problem, it will lose potential employment for its graduates, who have consistently benefited from all these factors.

What it will gain is a massive burden for remaining staff. The new depleted force will be expected to cater to over 500 students in different levels and years. Ominously, it will also gain an eager audience of other tertiaries keen to do the same sort of thing.

Why is this happening? It's because Unitec management has bought into the ideology of corporate colonising that has characterised NZ life since the 1980s. This business-first mantra is simply at odds with enlightened education. Tertiary education differs from industry training because the tertiaries build on a culture of scholarship, inquiry, research and knowledge creation. It enables teachers and learners to operate collectively and individually as knowledgeable and informed critical thinkers.

Unitec's ideology is also an embarrassing contradiction. For years it has insisted on its staff being able to span industry, academe and pedagogy. It has energetically pushed staff to gain and upgrade formal academic and professional qualifications. It has called repeatedly for staff to perform well on research, for the institution to score well on rankings in the Performance-Based Research Fund.

Now Unitec is willing to sweep away a culture that has taken years to construct, in order to carry out the current initiative. Its proposal relies on casual labour that is unprepared for tertiary teaching, thereby undermining and weakening the teaching profession.

Unitec is receiving some very unwelcome notoriety for its proposal. The best thing it could do at this stage is to dump the plan and restore trust in its current staff and structure. It could then pour its management resources into supporting and encouraging staff and programmes.

David Cooke, PhD
Senior Scholar, York University, Toronto
former staff member, Languages, Unitec


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