The global university

Few staff in the global university start to think about how their workplaces are actually run until they are in the middle of a change process. Day-to-day work does not provide a vocabulary with which to read fluently the language of change, and the act of coping with change processes as they occur makes it difficult to reflect on their meaning. Somewhere in the cycle of review, restructuring and redundancy emerges the uncomfortable truth: that the change process itself is not an anomaly but a product of how universities are run, in New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere. To survive, workers need to think, act and organise differently from how they have before, marrying to longstanding professional habits a more subversive and communal set of skills.

The universities’ managers – vice-chancellors, presidents and their deputies – are compelled to shore their institutions against the vagaries of an unstable present and future. This requires that they cut labour while creating conditions in which they can still recruit and teach students, and attract currently available funds (both public and private) for research and other activities. The pragmatic aim is always to keep internal structures not only sufficiently labile that they can be sized to fit the present political moment, but also sufficiently ductile that the appearance of a university does not wholly distort during this process. That ductility is maintained to a large extent by the way in which staff in universities do not view their work in these terms. To do so would be to opt into a grimly bureaucratic view that sets aside the emotional labour, the altruistic commitment, by which academic and other staff develop their identity.

An effective way to understand how this process plays out it is to follow the experiences of two university staff – for our purposes these are fictional characters but the scope of their experiences is real. The first – let’s call her Kate – is appointed to a lecturer’s position in the arts. Kate comes from the northern hemisphere, where she has worked in temporary academic positions while looking for a permanent job. Upon arrival, she joins in the work-life of her department with enthusiasm, doing all the teaching, research, supervision and service tasks for which she has previously received little pay and no job security. In short, she gets to work doing what she has trained for so long to do, paying little mind to the managerial structures of the institution by which she has been hired.

Another staff member, whom we’ll call Hēmi, has been recruited to lead a team in student services where staff provide pastoral support to different groups of students. Hēmi’s professional skills are considerable and include the bicultural competence that local institutions desire highly. In a manner typical of university general staff, Hēmi’s team has a complex, state-mandated blend of goals and measures of performance they must achieve. They take these responsibilities seriously, and as the person who leads these achievements, Hēmi considers himself a manager. His reputation grows among academics and general staff alike.

Kate and Hēmi are happily preoccupied with the day-to-day requirements of their jobs. From time to time they hear talk of reviews in other parts of the university, but assume that these must apply to areas where academic or pastoral outcomes for students are weaker than theirs. There is nothing in either the surface or the substance of their roles to suggest that their jobs might shortly be under threat. Yet, fewer than two years since they started in their positions, a review is announced of the wider areas in which they work.

Kate is taken aback: any of the measures by which her work is usually evaluated will surely show the strength of her contributions. Hēmi as a support staff member knows the constantly shifting boundaries that define university work a little better than Kate, whose career has just started. His own area of work is less established than Kate’s and he has been part of teams that have been reviewed before. Still, he is now a team leader, a manager by another name, and thus can surely provide evidence, if required, of the success and value of his team. In addition to his daily responsibilities, Hēmi also has plenty to do supporting cultural activities around campus, which is tacitly expected of him as a Māori staff member, and acting in an advisory capacity where required, often on the shortest of notice. It seems unlikely that the university would want to lose this ad hoc labour from either Hēmi or anyone else.

What Kate and Hēmi don’t yet grasp is the extent to which reviews that appear to single out individual areas of work are in fact part of the usual business of the institution. The size of the universities and the low profile kept by review teams obscure the quotidian nature of this processes, a low hum in the institution’s operation. The jobs that workers like Kate and Hēmi do are themselves high-intensity and in their immediate areas high-impact. They do not include readying oneself for scrutiny. When conclusions are made, it is unclear to those concerned what they might initially mean, since their own professional vocabulary is so different from the language of review, which comes from elsewhere, the State.

Thus, Kate’s review notes the need to consolidate strategic outcomes for the fields among which her work is located, in light of some localised decline in student enrolments and the recently-announced allocation of State funds to areas of study outside the Arts. The review outcomes for Hēmi are even more general, alluding to the need for the university continually to review where resources for support might best be allocated, and to explore where partner organisations might also contribute to service delivery. Hēmi, who already works with a number of partner organisations to support students, struggles to see how this might be different from what they do already. Between the schools, the rūnanga or tribal authority, and the community health providers, it is difficult to envisage with who else he might be expected to engage.

The day-to-day work of university staff thus provides neither the framework nor the vocabulary to read the auguries of review, and yet the inevitable change processes that follow seem to proceed on the assumption that their trajectory is readily intelligible. It’s because of this, combined with the reality of doing their jobs, that university staff are continually caught out by the consequences of review. The ability to ready oneself for review might in theory be an effective survival strategy in employment but it is not one that is ever advised or advertised save at the higher levels. It is not one for which the professional experience of staff like Hēmi or Kate prepares them.

Within three months of review, both Kate and Hēmi’s jobs are subject to change proposals. In Kate’s case, her department is to be merged with another that has experienced the same recent decline in enrolments. Kate’s job and the job of another lecturer from the other department are to be consolidated to form a single role. Hēmi is not to lose his job yet, but it is proposed that his team has its employment transferred to the students’ association, thus reducing the cost to the university of providing student services. This, in turns out, is what exploring the involvement of partner organisations meant. The students’ association would have control of the terms and conditions of the teams’ employment and Hēmi’s team would be required to meet service targets agreed between the association and the university. It is suggested that the agreed service targets may include some of the cultural expertise that Hēmi and some of his colleagues already provide as part of their current work.

In a few moments, everything is changed, and Kate and Hēmi have to go to work immediately on responding to their change proposals: they have thirty working days. While the university’s senior managers emphasise business as usual, Kate and Hēmi are in their own personal state of emergency; it seems that this too is a usual part of university business. Like most of their colleagues, Kate and Hēmi are union members, who joined out of a sense of general sympathy for unions and to make collective bargaining easier. Now they attend their first union meetings since they started their jobs. At work, their professionalism now extends to acting, when they are with students, as if what is happening is not happening, and they wonder how many other staff across the university are doing the same for their own jobs.

Some of Kate’s senior colleagues have been through this before but don’t seem particularly supportive. More than one suggest that the cream will rise to the top regardless; Kate inherited courses with declining numbers and should thus have seen this coming. It is important to Hēmi not to be unfairly critical of the students’ association as a prospective employer but he is uneasy nonetheless. The association has little to know experience of employing teams like his. What guarantee would he have that his proposed employers would understand student needs the way his team does, and what will happen as a consequence to the students he serves? He doesn’t want to work for them; he wants, like Kate, to work for a university.

How might one survive this? The answer, as we will see for Kate and Hēmi, rests in complex modes of solidarity. In their submissions on the change proposal they will need to take up combined rhetorics, appealing to the authority of their own areas of work yet seamlessly blending this with the terms out of which the change proposal speaks. Key among these is the offering of ‘new information’, the shorthand for factors the change proposal has not considered but for which a case may be made. For many staff the union provides a crucial role in synthesising these approaches and in providing a forum for solidarity and mutual help. As an external organisation the union, like others, also helps avoid the collapse into solipsism, cynicism or fatalism that is often a consequence for those who endure multiple change proposals. Yet, in solidarity, ‘new information’ may arise.

Feeling they are running out of options, both Kate and Hēmi attend another in a series of union meetings for those affected by change proposals. Those present now know each other by name. They hope there might be something there with which they can make their respective cases for survival: to respond to the change proposals in the required terms without losing sight of the identities on which their work rests. Indeed, it is because Kate, Hēmi and the rest of us who work in the universities cultivate another vision of what we do that we are ever able to resist the rhetoric of the change process: that there is never an alternative. This is the other part of survival: to use the hard wisdom gained from the process and to marry it to our own professional identities. Hybridised with an understanding of why change processes occur, these professional identities can become stronger still. In spite of the forces arrayed against us, alternatives can be found, with the right combination of agents to make them possible.

What might successful resistance look like for Kate and Hēmi? At the conclusion of the union meeting, they chat over a cup of tea. Their conversation reveals an unusual fact: among the students who have accessed Hēmi’s support services, a higher than usual number have gone on to enrol and succeed academically not only at least one of Kate’s courses, but also in the courses of the academic with whom her role is expected to merge. These students belong to at least one – perhaps more than one – of the groups currently targeted by the institution for recruitment and retention, subject to their own mandated performance measures for Hēmi’s team and for which the wider institution has a responsibility. A value can now be assigned to the work of both Kate and colleague that was not previously visible, and to which the institution’s attention can be drawn. On the surface this exchange of information appears serendipitous but in fact it arises out of a context of solidarity: the external environment of the union for sure, but also Kate and Hēmi’s commitment to their own work and their own professional identities.

A union organiser joins the conversation. Some of Hēmi’s colleagues in cultural advisory have been speaking with her after approaching the rūnanga. The rūnanga, the tribal authority whom the university must consult on matters Indigenous and which holds political power independent of the institution, is insistent that the students under its auspices must be supported by staff employed by the university. To do otherwise even in part would be in breach of the formal and informal agreements it has with the institution. Through the pace of its outsourcing it appears the university has not sought the rūnanga’s view on this matter. By this conversation another factor obscured by the change proposal has now been brought into the light. ‘New information’ of strategic significance: this is not a victory yet, for either Kate or Hēmi, but they have now palpable possibilities. Furthermore, they have across their hot drinks the attention of an union organiser who, her own workload notwithstanding, is now very interested in working with them indeed.

Awhi atu; Awhi mai; Tātou tātou e

Assistance given; support received; everyone together

(from ‘Tū Kotahi’, verse 3, by Whaea Mere Broughton of the Tertiary Education Union Te Hautū Kahurangi o Aotearoa)

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Megan Clayton is a writer from Sockburn in Christchurch, New Zealand. She works in tertiary education.

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