28 Jun 2023

Uni staff the 'backbone of this country', suffering in proposed cuts - union

9:52 am on 28 June 2023
Staff and students protest proposed cuts at Victoria University

A rally was held at Victoria University about the proposed cuts on 21 June. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Universities pushing ahead with cuts despite a funding boost is disappointing news, the Tertiary Education Union (TEU) says.

On Tuesday, Education Minister Jan Tinetti and Finance Minister Grant Robertson announced a $128 million boost to subsidies for degree and postgraduate enrolments for the next two years to help cash-strapped universities.

It also announced a review of tertiary education funding and a request for advice to ensure proposed cuts did not threaten the national provision of particular subjects or programmes.

The funding boost followed plans for hundreds of job losses at Otago and Victoria universities and warnings from staff, students and university leaders the sector was dangerously underfunded.

Vice-chancellors for both Otago and Victoria said proposed job losses and programme cuts were still on the cards, however.

Job cuts protest at Otago University

Job cuts protest at the University of Otago in May. Photo: RNZ / Tess Brunton

"This is not really what we want to be hearing," TEU national president Dr Julie Douglas told First Up.

The lack of international students because of Covid-19 had a "huge impact" and there was a long tail to the financial implications of them not being here.

Douglas said she hoped the review would allow a conversation about what a better funding system would look like, and not put universities back into the position they were currently in.

"I think there is always a danger when you have a heavy reliance on things like the international student market.

"It's highly competitive, it's volatile and as we saw with Covid, it's not to be relied on. We need to find a way to determine what it is we want from our sector and work towards achieving that.

"It's always felt sort of [like] a runaway train with no controls over what might impact on it."

Job losses happened at universities before Covid-19, but the recent hike in inflation had "really bitten".

"There's been a perfect storm of conditions which have really plunged some universities into a very perilous position."

Douglas said it was unfortunate that a workforce of "extremely committed" staff paid the price.

"Many are long-term employees who have been the backbone of this country, of training our professionals and our workforces and I think that's always been there with a commitment that we rely on, the goodwill of staff over and over and over.

"It's unfortunate that the decision comes down to individuals losing their jobs who have done nothing wrong to solve this problem, which is probably a function of both management decisions and government funding decisions over a long period of time."

Of the announced funding boost, Victoria University would get $12m over two years. But with a deficit of $33m a year, it was not nearly enough.

Vice-chancellor Nic Smith told Morning Report the university was looking at the government package very closely, but with a deficit of its size and additional funding less than 20 percent of that "it was very hard [to] avoid the situation".

"To be financially sustainable, yes, we will have to make some of the redundancies that we have proposed before this package."

Smith said universities were long-term institutions and a long-term view needed to be taken - but he did not want to diminish the pain that was "acutely felt" at both Otago and Victoria.

The current model - where universities existed completely in isolation from each other in a country as small as New Zealand - did not serve its national interest, he said. The country did not need eight different law schools and the same courses offered at every university.

"We could have a discussion around how we could do that more collaboratively than the isolated, competitive model that the current system is producing."

Despite the funding boost, Otago was continuing with its voluntary redundancies.

Acting vice-chancellor Helen Nicholson told Nine to Noon about 200 people had applied and the university was working through the applications.

The need for more redundancies was likely with a $60m deficit and the extra funding not arriving until 2024.

Nicholson said the funding - which would see the university receive $10.5m next year - was a "move in the right direction" and they were not complaining about it.

"But realistically, we are not going to be able to avoid closing some programmes and making some people redundant, unfortunately."

She said there were a range of factors that had contributed to the downturn of student numbers, such as low numbers of Year 13 students, fewer achieving University Entrance and the borders reopening.

"I think there are lots of factors, some of which we may have predicted, but not all of them."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs