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October 6, 2008 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

The State of Victoria University

salient_cover_24_finalInappropriate and lewd lecturer-student relationships! Academic ineptitude! Blatant bias! Marxist crackpots! Wild-eyed megalomaniacs! … Douchebags!

If this sounds familiar, then the best of Salient’s sound and objective reportage over your years of readership has done its job. Long have we maintained an occasionally querulous interest in the performance and role of academic staff here at Victoria University. Critiquing arseholes and hermits alike, Salient has trained its keen eye on the various achievements and failures of the student-staff relationship. We’ve also spent a significant amount of paper on praising the virtues of our teachers through the auspices of Academic Idol, much to the amusement of both staff and students. But more and more this relationship is being discussed in terms of a customer-client dichotomy, whereby students who pay through their caffeine-stained teeth for an education want different things from academics. Moreover, the role that those same academics are expected to play at the University has been almost transformed in the last ten years. What exactly has happened here?

In 2003 Salient Editor Michael Appleton wrote a lengthy and indepth piece about the changing nature of academic employment at Victoria University (although it is fair to say these tides wash across the idle beach of many a tertiary institution throughout New Zealand). Far from solely serving the idealistic whims of students and providing the intellectual pay-off for our loans, academics must also fulfil significant research requirements, contribute to the community and keep up with various administrative tasks. Not so much the inky fingered haven of academia that budding thinkers might aspire to. This relatively involved job description has become considerably more stressful in the past few years thanks to soaring student numbers with little relative increase in staff numbers. In addition to this, changes to the way the University is funded [see Tristan’s piece on funding] over the past eight years has fundamentally altered lecturers’ experience. And finally, as Michael’s piece noted, the massive shake up in the University’s managing structures has insidiously changed aspects of the University’s priorities, and how it is run day to day.

To the matter of funding: PBRF effectively means that 25% of funding allocated to tertiary institutions is put into a nation-wide pool. Every three years academics provide an excruciatingly detailed report of their research output, including articles and books published, citations and so forth. They are awarded either an A, B or C grade or ‘inactive research’, and for each category are allocated varying degrees of funds for the University.

The new system is undoubtedly an improvement upon funding allocated solely upon student numbers (EFTS) but it has brought a whole host of problems. As Ismay Barwell, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy believes, “Teaching was always lower in value than research but now it’s even lower, lower, lower”. In some senses, it’s a simple matter of incentive. PBRF funding drives academics to produce more and more research, ideally single-authored peer reviewed articles in internationally renowned journals. This effectively means less time for students and teaching in general.

Appleton identified section 196(1) of the Education Act 1989 as having a profound effect on the way the University is run, and consequently the way that PBRF is interpreted. Since that year, the Vice-Chancellor of the University is effectively the chief executive of the institution, signalling that it is no longer run by a collection of academics. It has become clear that the onceinfl uential University Council is now little more than a glorified rubber-stamping agency (to use’s Appelton’s phrasing) which acquiesces to the Senior Management Team’s agenda (of which the VC is head). Not to suggest that this was wholly a negative development: as Barwell points out, “there are some good things that have come out of this with respect to students – there were no things in place to address harassment of various forms for example, it was very difficult to get any kind of justice”. This restructuring has also emphasised the need for more planning on the part of academics for their courses, and more accountability. And yet, the ‘managerisation’ of the University has crept around in insidious ways. Barwell: “We’re far too far down the business model line [to change the ideology behind the running of the University]. We’re a business now.”

The increasing disjuncture between staff and management has meant that the effects of the interpretation of PBRF are not being felt by those who are enforcing them. This includes increasingly unsustainable workloads, a loss in the sense of an academic community and a bizarre emphasis on producing a very particular kind of research, at the expense of teaching, community involvement and disciplinary practice. A recent review of PBRF for the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) by Evidence Ltd, an independent review company, pointed out that certain disciplines, like medicine and those that best fit the traditional western scientific paradigm in general, are over promoted. And conversely, it works less well for longer-term research, social sciences and the creative arts. The review has also identified what seems to be the sorest point for the academics I talked to, which is the massive inflation of the importance of this research by staff and managers.

Richard Williams, Senior Lecturer in Geography, doesn’t think we should consider funding as a simple pay off between accountability and academic freedom. “It’s not that the government and the taxpayer doesn’t have a right to expect a bang for its buck, we are accountable. What bugs me is the way the research outputs are measured. There are certain things they can’t measure, so they only bother with the things that they can.” Williams for example has gained the most pleasure from preparing papers for regional councils, but these count for little under the current interpretation of PBRF. Moreover, he is discouraged to write books because ‘they take too long’. “Instead we’re told to write articles in wanking journals that nobody reads.”

One particular lecturer, who asked not to be named, was hugely critical of the culture that this attitude has cultivated. “Students are a nuisance, in this culture. If you are smart, and you want to get the rewards, you don’t make yourself available to students above the bare minimum, and in a sense just hide away. There’s become a split between those who see themselves in the service of students, and those who see them as a means to an end. And PBRF encourages the ‘means to an end’ outlook.” This lecturer reports that a highly influential member of the institution openly declared that the sole purpose of postgraduate students is to help staff achieve their PBRF goals. The unnamed lecturer notes that of course this will still benefit students. “But that attitude is very different to the traditional idea of being in the service of a student, to help lift their capability. To help them to become a better professional.” He truly believes that the University no longer functions as an education facility. It is a research facility that teaches.

Disciplines whose teaching is directly related to practical outcomes also suffer from the homogenisation of academic evaluation. A PBRF model would not value, for example, the design and creation of groundbreaking sustainable building which uses some of the most innovative theories to date. Major impact would be more certain if an architect wrote about the theories behind the building. For those whose peers are practitioners, this does not bode well for the future of academia’s relationship with utility and community. “People who are educators/practitioners are not welcome here”.

As Russell Campbell, Associate Professor of Film, notes: “the process of PBRF could hardly be called transparent.” Moreover, it seems to encourage duplicity amongst staff and their peers, as people work in increasingly self-centred ways.

If I put on the shiny cloak of business speak, I could talk about stakeholders and shares and investment and all sorts of other things that I don’t really understand. But I get that students are meant to be primary stakeholders, and we are being brutally underinvested in. I am taking the advice of mad prophet Howard Beale from Network and yelling, as the froth gathers at my lips, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” I say this (scream, really, although you can’t hear me from the pizza-encrusted confines of the Salient office) with all the fury of a third year student at the end of her (valueless?) degree, that this is a fucking sorry state of affairs. And those with the least influence at the University are suffering the consequences.

On Monday I went to the White Fungus screening of Someone Else’s Country, which was kicked off by a panel discussion with the filmmaker Alistair Barry, Nicky Hager and Tim Bollinger. Bollinger re-emphasised the impact of the ‘user pays’ ideology on the education system – that we, as customers of the University, in effect, are now responsible for our education and owe little to anyone else.

Although the new academic culture emerging from underneath PBRF similarly seems to be a kind of neo-liberalisation of academia, it isn’t a particularly healthy one, because we aren’t getting what we pay for. It could easily be changed if the government broadened its definition of what constitutes quality when it sets up a quality assurance system. That could mean an emphasis on quality education, which doesn’t mean quality research will suffer, especially given that the institution IS a higher education institution. A well functioning PBRF system would also reward people who are choosing to be good educators.

How’s this for a new manifesto for the election (for whichever party takes it on): We are going to reward Universities if they turn out really good teachers because as a government we care about the quality of our national education system.

The impetus has to come from the government, because the University is unlikely to reinterpret the funding scheme as it stands at this point. Realistically, it makes much more sense to use our new (could we even say bloated?) management capabilities to assess the strengths of our academic staff. Some are naturally talented and happy to engage quality in teaching, others in research. The former should be encouraged to spend more time in front of students, and the latter in front of microscopes. There is no harm in recognising and rewarding the varied strengths currently available in our institutions, even better, we could gain so much from this revaluation. Michael Cullen, when discussing the history of university funding, noted that money based on EFTS resulted in a “glut of middling degrees in law, business and communications”. If the way PBRF is interpreted continues to provide disincentives for staff to do anything other than a very restricted type of research, then how do we guarantee anyone graduates without such a middling degree? Of course, driven students will find a way. But we are not all here to be academics, and under this current sway of restrictive thinking, thinking and acting outside of this insular, at times pathetically so, world, is becoming less and less popular.

As tells me, “At Victoria University you’ll learn from some of the best and brightest in every field imaginable.” The question remains as to whether these bright stars will actually be around to graciously answer your erratic questions and demands. If they know you exist at all.


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Comments (8)

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  1. appalled at unamed lecturer. says:

    I am appalled at the comments in this article. that particular comment by the “anomoyous
    lecturer? lets narrow it down? means to an end ?ethics lecturer? why be moral lecturer? That students are nuisance

    highly influential member of the department? what a toffy nosed ponsy comment, University lectures can be a massive hassle far worse then CEOs or managers,

    These are the jerky lecturers that dont derserve to be in the position they are in.I highly commend the lecturers that are in service to the stuudents as well as looking after their they are out there i have met them.

    One lecturer once mentiioned in his office that women lectuters were not respected as men at university. pretty much implying that female lecturers were a joke. seems that this lecture had little repect for women.or students.
    also seemed to have short man sydrome .and overed up his chauvanistic comments due to his inferiority complex.

    these are lecturers that hide away as they dont have people skills.They are more likely to have better communicative ability with their books

    I commend the comment about write in articles in wanking journaks that no body reads..:0 but i do respect and understand that research is an important part of their career,


    We pay the money ,,, lecturers need to expect that they are here to serve us!
    because really we serve you too:)

  2. Eleanor Bishop says:

    Great feature Tania. Salient will miss your talents in 09. xx

  3. Tania Mead says:

    Dear appalled,

    After sifting through the incoherent detritus of your comment at least three times, I still have no idea what point you were trying to make. That lecturer was criticising the thinking that ‘students are a nuisance’, not condoing it. I think it can generally be assumed that teaching and research inform and complement each other. No-one (sensible) is arguing for the abolition of either, just a re-jigging of the system so one is not sacrificed for the esoteric ends of the other.


  4. lovely says:

    Hi Tania,

    You sound like a lecturer!

  5. lovely says:

    interesting article. great points made

  6. Tom says:

    Another interesting point about PBRF is the methods used by the universities to work their way around the system. A professor at Victoria explained to me a strategy where many academic staff are laid off and reemployed on contract, leaving only the top published academics on the books. This way when the PBRF funding cow comes along the university gets more cash – as it appears to have a higher number of published academics than it actually does.

    I haven’t looked into it but it is quite likely this situation has something to do with it also:

  7. Tom says:

    So if you take the “analogy” of university as a business:

    Students are responsible for their own education. So it’s up to students to reject the current status quo of signing up to university and getting a loan to fund a degree, to get an interview, to get a career. When the employer doesn’t actually need you to have most of the degree in the first place!

    “Employers do not even interview applicants who do not hold a B.A. Even more brutal, the advantage conferred by the B.A. often has nothing to do with the content of the education. Employers do not value what the student learned, just that the student has a degree.”

    This situation has bred a “C’s get degrees” attitude from students, and a policy of “no degree, no interview” from employers.

    By complaining only about the cost of university education, students are accepting its current quality and relevance.

    By only selecting candidates who hold a degree, employers are encouraging a situation in which they interview graduates who hold degrees made up of papers irrelevant to their industry often with many poor grades. is an online tool used to calculate, measure and compare the value of academic achievement at university.

    Academic Score acknowledges value of individual papers. In doing so, both employers and students are considering the value and relevance of the parts that make up a degree.

    The website facilitates a greatly needed link between university, students and industry.

  8. dave says:

    That is a very good feature. Well done.

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