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VUW-Hub-7In March this year, Vic­tor­ia Uni­ver­sity (VUW) launched its new stu­dent ‘hub’ com­plex in Kel­burn; the fol­low­ing month cham­pagne flutes were raised in cel­eb­ra­tion of VUW’s rank­ing as the num­ber one New Zea­l­and uni­ver­sity. But among fraud alleg­a­tions, a depart­ing vice-chan­cel­lor and a strug­gling stu­dent uni­on, Renée Ger­lich dis­cov­ers plenty of toil and trouble beneath the hub and bubbles on campus.

The title ‘phys­ic­al edu­ca­tion lec­turer’ does sound like a bit of an oxy­mor­on. Wit­ness­ing VUW’s Liz Thevenard splayed across a lectern in goggles and a swim­ming cap, demon­strat­ing the ele­ments of free­style, makes it look a bit like one too. Thevenard’s love of move­ment is infec­tious, and when VUW’s Fac­ulty of Edu­ca­tion was still the Teach­ers’ Col­lege, she spent 40 hours a week teach­ing train­ees in the gym and swim­ming pool, and on the sports field. Uni­ver­sity man­age­ment have now reduced Thevenard’s job to ten hours per week of lec­tur­ing, favour­ing high-per­form­ance research­ers over act­ive teachers.

The government’s Per­form­ance-Based Research Fund (PBRF) sees New Zealand’s ter­tiary aca­dem­ic staff graded A, B, C or ‘R’ (inact­ive) accord­ing to research per­form­ance. These grades cumu­lat­ively determ­ine both uni­ver­sit­ies’ nation­wide rank­ings and their share of the government’s $250 mil­lion PBRF pie. Staff cat­egor­ised ‘R’, ener­get­ic Thevenards among them, do not boost rankings.


Thevenard believes that school­chil­dren bear the brunt of the pri­or­it­isa­tion of research per­form­ance in ter­tiary insti­tu­tions. “I think in the next five years we will see the school sys­tems in crisis,” she says, since the sys­tem does not enable suf­fi­cient hands-on upskilling of train­ee teachers.

When the PBRF res­ults were pub­lished this year, VUW ranked top, com­pared to fourth in 2006. It came first or second in 24 sub­ject areas, com­pared to a pre­vi­ous 11. Under­stand­ably, this was excit­ing news for the uni­ver­sity. Vice-chan­cel­lor Pat Walsh attrib­utes the leap to “very, very hard work… People believed that this was vital to the future of the uni­ver­sity and com­mit­ted to it in a really quite remark­able way.”

Accord­ing to gov­ernance and policy stud­ies seni­or asso­ci­ate Dr Geoff Ber­tram, how­ever, the ‘remark­able com­mit­ment’ to which Walsh refers wasn’t all above board: “Vic cooks its PBRF num­bers,” he says. Ter­tiary Edu­ca­tion Uni­on (TEU) coun­cil mem­ber and imme­di­ate past pres­id­ent Dr Sandra Grey has con­firmed pub­licly that “Uni­ver­sit­ies have changed people’s employ­ment agree­ments, restruc­tured depart­ments and people’s jobs, and in some cases made aca­dem­ics redund­ant.” This increases the pro­por­tion of high-per­form­ing staff on their books, mean­ing “they can appear high­er on a rank­ings lad­der than oth­er universities”.

VUW-Liz-4The sys­tem is once again under review. Last March, VUW eco­nom­ics and fin­ance asso­ci­ate pro­fess­or Mar­tin Lally repor­ted eight indi­vidu­al cases in which VUW sought to remove staff who are less act­ive in research from the payroll in pre­par­a­tion for the 14 June census date. Lally says he knows of a staff mem­ber who was on rolling three-year con­tracts, but was then sud­denly presen­ted with a nine-month con­tract expir­ing before June 2012; and anoth­er on a fixed-term con­tract the uni­ver­sity asked to replace. A third aca­dem­ic on an open-ended con­tract was asked to stand down. All these requests were made to staff “on the under­stand­ing that they would be rehired after the census date”.

In light of this, Lally emailed chan­cel­lor Ian McKin­non in May ask­ing him to resign. He signed off: “The Uni­ver­sity is entitled to be led by a per­son whose stand­ards of beha­viour are above reproach. It does not seem to me that you now sat­is­fy that test. Resig­na­tion would be sensible.”

Between March and April 2012, the TEU handled sim­il­ar cases from 28 insti­tu­tions around the coun­try. “Suc­cess­ful uni­ver­sity admin­is­tra­tions are under pres­sure to become skilled fraud­sters,” says Ber­tram, “because that’s how you get PBRF money and that’s how you get pro­mo­tions and bonuses. We pay our top exec­ut­ives now to be basic­ally good at fool­ing people, rather than good at devel­op­ing a cul­ture of schol­ar­ship and main­tain­ing a good pos­i­tion in the world com­munity of scholarship.”

Ber­tram remem­bers a VUW that emphas­ised the lat­ter: he was a stu­dent there in the 1960s. “We had a cafet­er­ia where every­body went for din­ner every night on the cam­pus,” he says. “It was a seeth­ing hot­bed of dis­cus­sion and argu­ment. Every week there was a soap­box for­um out­side the Stu­dent Uni­on where hun­dreds of stu­dents con­greg­ated and debated the issues of the day. “That’s gone.” This is due to changes in gov­ern­ment policy, he says, and the “ideo­lo­gic­al wet blanket [that] has come down over the universities”.

VUW-Hub-Rory-2The 1960s also saw the intro­duc­tion of the bursary sys­tem, which largely covered stu­dents’ fees and accom­mod­a­tion costs. This saw uni­ver­sity enrol­ments increase 385 per­cent by 1989, when fees rose as bursar­ies were replaced by stu­dent loans and allow­ances. This year’s gov­ern­ment budget included an increase in the stu­dent loan repay­ment rate and a tight­en­ing of eli­gib­il­ity to stu­dent allowances.

VUW now receives about 40 per­cent of its annu­al income from gov­ern­ment grants. Accord­ing to Walsh, today’s uni­ver­sit­ies “can’t just expect the gov­ern­ment to front up with $130 mil­lion a year… We have to demon­strate that the tax­pay­er is get­ting value for money, and there­fore there are much stronger mech­an­isms of account­ab­il­ity.” Hence the PBRF.

Ber­tram has a second prob­lem, though, with this sys­tem. “It’s stamped in favour of those sub­jects that really can demon­strate research per­form­ance, which is best done in sci­ence.” With restric­ted budgets, this means sub­jects “like his­tory and philo­sophy, music, reli­gious stud­ies, ser­i­ous soci­ology and good eco­nom­ics” are “starved of funding”.

Pub­lic policy pro­fess­or Jonath­an Boston lists VUW’s Philo­sophy, Bio­med­ic­al, Phys­ics and Chem­istry schools among those that per­formed well in the first PBRF round. He says that well-estab­lished dis­cip­lines rank bet­ter than new­er ones (like media stud­ies) or those with strong clin­ic­al or pro­fes­sion­al prac­tice com­pon­ents (like social work, nurs­ing and clin­ic­al medicine).

When it comes to redis­trib­ut­ing funds, Boston says uni­ver­sit­ies do tend “to put the major­ity of money back where it is gen­er­ated”. The PBRF fund­ing mod­el, says Ber­tram, is a Rogernom­ics design that puts uni­ver­sit­ies under sig­ni­fic­ant polit­ic­al pres­sure. “More and more,” he says, “the fund­ing the gov­ern­ment provides the uni­ver­sit­ies is tagged to uni­ver­sit­ies behav­ing them­selves and doing things that the gov­ern­ment wants them to do.” It is per­haps telling that VUW’s deputy vice-chan­cel­lor (research) Neil Quigley also chairs the board at VicLink, VUW’s com­mer­cial com­pany, as well as one of VicLink’s cur­rent ven­tures, iPre­dict Ltd, which enables traders to buy and sell shares in future events.

The Edu­ca­tion Act 1989 requires New Zealand’s uni­ver­sit­ies to func­tion as the crit­ic and con­science of soci­ety, advan­cing learn­ing through intel­lec­tu­al inde­pend­ence, qual­ity research and teach­ing. Accord­ing to Ber­tram, VUW, like the country’s oth­er uni­ver­sit­ies, “has sys­tem­at­ic­ally moved away from any engage­ment that might make it a really genu­ine crit­ic or a really ser­i­ous con­science… it allows two or three token Marx­ists to exist deep in soci­ology or anthro­po­logy or maybe philo­sophy, but it will not appoint and it will not pro­mote people who have a crit­ic­al approach to eco­nom­ic and social and leg­al sys­tems in the key areas of power.”

When Ber­tram joined the aca­dem­ic staff in the 1970s, “We were engaged in social sci­ence for the bene­fit of the total com­munity.” He says courses relat­ing to work­ers, the his­tory of eco­nom­ic thought, wage, income and wealth dis­tri­bu­tion and inequal­ity were taught. Now, “that takes you into ter­rit­ory which is abso­lutely loathed by people who hold the power and the purse-strings in the New Zea­l­and com­munity,” he says. “Devel­op­ment issues, social justice issues, the oper­a­tion of cap­it­al­ism – if you want to teach eco­nom­ics in a uni­ver­sity now and want to sur­vive or have any sort of a career, you abso­lutely do not ask those questions.”


Walsh says part of demon­strat­ing the university’s value to tax­pay­ers means that, in large part, the value in study­ing human­it­ies and social sci­ences lies in the skills gained for trans­fer into the work­force. He says VUW places “a very strong focus on gradu­ate employ­ab­il­ity: are the gradu­ates com­ing out of uni­ver­sit­ies in New Zea­l­and fit for pur­pose, if you like, to the world of work?”

Walsh echoes Can­ter­bury seni­or eco­nom­ics lec­turer Dr Eric Crampton’s belief that degrees have become a means of “sig­nalling” attrib­utes such as intel­li­gence and time man­age­ment to employ­ers. Whilst this is obvi­ously appro­pri­ate in part, this focus on employ­ab­il­ity over sub­stance con­trib­utes to what Ber­tram observes as the gradu­al remov­al of invalu­able course con­tent from uni­ver­sity programmes.

Once again, this can be viewed as a nation­al chal­lenge rather than one facing VUW alone. But in this cli­mate, are degrees still worth the goat­skin parch­ment – are VUW stu­dents still get­ting bang for their buck in the form of qual­ity education?

There are some wor­ry­ing signs.Tutor budgets were cut dra­mat­ic­ally in 2009, and Ber­tram notes how poor pay rates and job insec­ur­ity has led to dif­fi­culty in retain­ing first-rate tutors. “There is a pas­tor­al aspect to tutor­ing as well as a teach­ing aspect,” he says. “And if you don’t have the resources and the time to take a hol­ist­ic approach to your teach­ing, you can’t do what tutor­ing is really about.”

Inter­na­tion­al stu­dents are a luc­rat­ive rev­en­ue stream for VUW, but along with Māori and Pasi­fika stu­dents enrolling through the equity pro­gramme, they may suf­fer the most. Numer­ous tutors exper­i­ence dif­fi­culty provid­ing the extra lit­er­acy and learn­ing sup­port these stu­dents require, yet the uni­ver­sity has course-com­ple­tion tar­gets for the quota of Māori and Pasi­fika equity stu­dents who are entitled to enrol des­pite not attain­ing the high school qual­i­fic­a­tions nor­mally requisite.

Accord­ing to one VUW lec­turer, his fac­ulty accepts fees from for­eign stu­dents who struggle with Eng­lish, “just to take their money. We’ve been asked to pass stu­dents whose lit­er­acy is atro­cious. To give an idea of the scale of the prob­lem, in a course I just taught in which over the half the class were inter­na­tion­al stu­dents, over half the class would have failed if lit­er­acy was taken seriously.

We can’t fail them for lan­guage because it’s not their fault that they were let in, and they work so hard, but then our lit­er­acy stand­ards are a com­plete joke.” In 2011, gov­ern­ment cut the ‘bridging’ courses designed to equip inter­na­tion­al stu­dents for university.

One response to reduced tutor budgets and a dif­fi­cult extern­al fin­an­cial envir­on­ment is through tech­no­logy: Walsh says imple­ment­a­tion of the new digit­al learn­ing strategy has begun. The uni­ver­sity is explor­ing wheth­er “courses, pro­grammes, whole degrees will be provided online… [wheth­er] the learn­ing will be done online and the teach­ing will be done online, as opposed to in classrooms”. To what extent this strategy is driv­en by the neces­sity of cost-cut­ting rather than qual­ity teach­ing is open for debate.

VUW-Liz-1VUW Stu­dents’ Asso­ci­ation (VUWSA) pres­id­ent Rory McCourt says, “We [the Stu­dents’ Asso­ci­ation] do think that qual­ity teach­ing has cer­tainly got to be right up there with qual­ity and quant­ity of research.” The university’s 23,000 stu­dents require a strong rep­res­ent­at­ive voice, “a watch­dog”, to ensure the main­ten­ance of a qual­ity stu­dent exper­i­ence in today’s com­pet­it­ive, cost-cut­ting cli­mate. Yet VUWSA has lost the guar­an­teed rev­en­ue it has tra­di­tion­ally relied on to deliv­er its advocacy and ser­vices. Since 2011’s Vol­un­tary Stu­dent Mem­ber­ship (VSM) bill, stu­dent uni­on mem­ber­ship is now option­al. Three-quar­ters of VUW stu­dents are still uni­on mem­bers, yet accord­ing to Walsh, any fig­ure less than 100 per­cent means the pres­id­ent no longer rep­res­ents the whole stu­dent body.

So in the same way that the uni­ver­sit­ies have to demon­strate that the pub­lic is get­ting value for money for the invest­ment they make in uni­ver­sit­ies,” says Walsh, “VUWSA need to demon­strate that it is provid­ing value to stu­dents.” This puts them in a pre­dic­a­ment. Last fin­an­cial year saw VUWSA with a $15,000 defi­cit after receiv­ing their annu­al grant from VUWSA Trust, and this year’s defi­cit is fore­cast to be even greater.

Some good news for VUW stu­dents came with the com­ple­tion of the new stu­dent hub in Kel­burn cam­pus, a col­lab­or­at­ive pro­ject between VUW and VUWSA Trust launched in March. The spa­cious new hub replaces the cold, old, windswept ‘quad’, which was par­tially sheltered and neither sunny nor study-friendly.

A lot of stu­dent money was put into it – $4 mil­lion,” says McCourt. VUWSA Trust ini­tially pledged $12 mil­lion to the upgrade; the remain­ing $8 mil­lion bal­ance was to be paid over 15 years, with the option to with­draw fol­low­ing the fin­an­cial blow of VSM. It is likely that the trust will exer­cise that option, but the uni­ver­sity should be able to cov­er the cost. After VSM, they increased the stu­dent ser­vices levy by more than the lost VUWSA fee.

McCourt is delighted with the res­ult. “The upgrade is won­der­ful,” he says. “It’s really well received by stu­dents; it’s giv­en the uni­ver­sity a heart again that stu­dents can really take some own­er­ship over and appre­ci­ate as their space. It’s come out of a lot of hard work by stu­dents on the hub com­mit­tees for years.” It includes plenty of seat­ing for study, lunch and social­ising, as well as book­shop VicBooks and food retailers.

While some are cel­eb­rat­ing Victoria’s vic­tor­ies (many of them worthy), oth­ers, like Ber­tram, remain uncon­vinced: “Vic’s biggest aspir­a­tion now is to be a fourth-rate busi­ness school,” he says. “It’s giv­en up try­ing to be a qual­ity world-class uni­ver­sity. We could aim much higher.”

Vic­tor­ia is New Zealand’s num­ber one uni­ver­sity – but accord­ing to a broken meas­ure now under review. This sys­tem of meas­ure­ment itself con­trib­utes to nation­wide pres­sure on uni­ver­sit­ies to com­pete, cost-cut and com­mer­cial­ise. Although this pres­sure is in no way of VUW’s mak­ing, and there is no deny­ing that much of what hap­pens at our uni­ver­sity is excel­lent, its response to these chal­lenges has been telling. Wellington’s uni­ver­sity needs to do better.

Ulti­mately, those choos­ing a uni­ver­sity cur­rently would be wise not to go weak at the knees over rank­ings. Carry out your own enquiry – choose your sub­ject area, and look for a uni­ver­sity that sports and sup­ports its Ber­trams and its Thevenards: strong, inde­pend­ent aca­dem­ic voices as well as qual­ity coal-face teach­ing. That’s where you want to go, wheth­er it’s to VUW or elsewhere.


Speed reading: 10 fast facts


  1. The government’s Per­form­ance-Based Research Fund (PBRF) sees New Zealand’s ter­tiary aca­dem­ic staff graded A, B, C or ‘R’ (inact­ive) accord­ing to research per­form­ance. Grades cumu­lat­ively determ­ine uni­ver­sit­ies’ nation­wide rank­ings, and rank­ings determ­ine ter­tiary insti­tu­tions’ share of the asso­ci­ated $250 mil­lion gov­ern­ment fund.


  1. VUW ranked top this year, com­pared to fourth in 2006 (or sixth, depend­ing on the meas­ure: VUW rose in the ranks after a recal­cu­la­tion excluded R research­ers). They came first or second in 24 sub­ject areas, com­pared to a pre­vi­ous 11.


  1. The PBRF sys­tem gave uni­ver­sit­ies an incent­ive to improve their rank­ings by manip­u­lat­ing employ­ment con­tracts, remov­ing staff less act­ive in research from the payroll on the 14 June 2012 census date. Between March and April 2012, the Ter­tiary Edu­ca­tion Uni­on (TEU) handled 150 per­son­al cases from 28 insti­tu­tions nationwide.


  1. The Ter­tiary Edu­ca­tion Com­mis­sion (TEC) com­mis­sioned KPMG to carry out an audit of ter­tiary insti­tu­tions’ PBRF prac­tice. The res­ult­ing March 2012 report con­firmed prob­lems and ‘gam­ing’. The audit estim­ated that VUW had 690 PBRF eli­gible staff. Kiwib­log author Dav­id Far­rar repor­ted that VUW sub­mit­ted 641.54 staff into the eval­u­ation exercise.


  1. The PBRF is again under review. “I hope that this review and con­sulta­tion on per­form­ance-based research fund­ing will mean that good teach­ers and emer­ging research­ers at uni­ver­sit­ies can have more job secur­ity,” says former TEU nation­al pres­id­ent Dr Sandra Grey.


  1. Uni­ver­sity enrol­ments increased approx­im­ately 385 per­cent between the 1960s intro­duc­tion of the bursary sys­tem (which largely covered stu­dents’ fees and accom­mod­a­tion costs) and 1989. In 1989, fees rose as bursar­ies were replaced by stu­dent loans and allowances.


  1. The total New Zea­l­and loan bal­ance is now $13 bil­lion, and loans have been interest-free since 2006. The 2013 budget included an increase in the stu­dent loan repay­ment rate and a tight­en­ing of stu­dent allow­ance eli­gib­il­ity. Stu­dent allow­ances are no longer avail­able for post­gradu­ate study.


  1. Tutor budgets were cut dra­mat­ic­ally in 2009. VUW is under pres­sure to pass Māori and Pasi­fika equity stu­dents, as well as inter­na­tion­al stu­dents, des­pite lit­er­acy problems.


  1. Vice-chan­cel­lor Pat Walsh says VUW places “a very strong focus on gradu­ate employ­ab­il­ity”. Can­ter­bury seni­or eco­nom­ics lec­turer Dr Eric Cramp­ton believes that degrees have become a means of “sig­nalling” attrib­utes such as intel­li­gence and time man­age­ment to employers.


  1. VUW has 23,000 enrolled stu­dents. VUWSA pres­id­ent Rory McCourt says they need a rep­res­ent­at­ive “watch­dog”. The passing of the Vol­un­tary Stu­dent Mem­ber­ship (VSM) bill in 2011 made mem­ber­ship of VUWSA option­al. Cur­rently, 75 per­cent of VUW stu­dents are uni­on mem­bers. VUWSA suffered a $15,000 defi­cit in 2012.

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