Saturday, December 2, 2023

Varsity job carnage puts research at risk

Neal Wallace
Funding already tight amid government’s ‘smoke and mirrors’.
Professor Julian Heyes says when academics and technicians previously lost jobs, many would find work at Crown Research Institutes – not an option this time.
Reading Time: 2 minutes

The 1000 university and polytechnic jobs at risk of being cut include academic roles whose loss could undermine New Zealand’s research clout, warns the body representing agriculture and horticulture scientists.

Significant job losses are pending at AUT, Massey, Victoria and Otago universities and the NZ Institute of Skills and Technology (Te Pukenga), due to falling enrolments, fewer international students and funding failing to stay ahead of inflation.

Professor Julian Heyes, the president of the NZ Institute of Agricultural and Horticultural Science, said the fact that multiple universities are looking to reduce staff shows the issues are  widespread.

The tertiary sector attributes its challenges to three years without international students, falling enrolments and funding by successive governments not keeping pace with inflation.

AUT faces a $21 million deficit and last year sought to reduce staff by 250, of whom 170 were academics.

The Tertiary Education Union mounted a successful legal challenge, and it was found that mistakes had been made in AUT’s handing of the redundancies, which has delayed the process.

Massey is seeking to make 178 people redundant, many in supporting roles, but create positions for 144 to address a $15m budget shortfall.

Victoria has a $33m hole and wants to lay off 260 staff, of whom 110 are academics. Otago has a $60m hole to fill and seeks to make about 280 people redundant.

The merger of the former polytechnic into the NZ Institute of Skills and Technology (Te Pukenga), has created a $63m deficit, and it expects to make “hundreds” redundant.

Heyes said when academics and technicians previously lost jobs, many would find work at Crown Research Institutes, but they do not have the capacity to employ them this time around.

He said claims by government officials that more money is being invested in research is smoke and mirrors.

Researchers are successfully leveraging investment from the commercial sector, which is being counted as government funding.

“Researchers are not seeing bucket loads of new money,” he said.

Heyes fears there is a pervasive view in Wellington that agriculture and horticulture are sunset industries and the future is in sectors such as information technology.

“Whenever that old idea raises its head, we point out that agriculture and horticulture are very high-tech.”

He said the sector needs to differentiate itself to overcome the tyranny of distance from markets.

In recent years social science has increasingly had roles in agricultural and horticultural research, which Heyes said contributes to holistic, considered, all-round findings.

“We applaud that.”

But it also means the pool of money for that research is spread more thinly, distributed across multiple disciplines instead of being additional funding.

Heyes said with the current abundance of jobs, fewer young people are contemplating tertiary education, but that could change once they realise higher education will enable them to earn higher incomes.

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