Archive for ‘Education’ Category

Rioting Poms.

datePosted on 11:57, August 9th, 2011 by Pablo

A short while ago we were treated to the spectacle of a Royal Westminster wedding, a royal tour of Canada and the US, then another lesser royal wedding. The UK and colonial media went crazy with 24/7 coverage of the fairy tale personae involved, and the image conveyed was of stability and continuity in British foundational politics.  All was well in the Realm.

In the months since the first royal celebration things have grown dimmer. There is the hacking scandal in which politicians and the police appear to be complicit in the illegal tapping of private information by media corporations (primarily but not exclusively Murdoch-owned assets). Added to this sign of elite criminal coziness, now there is a police shooting followed by wildcat riots that represent criminal opportunism rather than outrage about the death itself. The UK media are swamped with reporters, police spokespersons and politicians all chanting in unison about the “mindless thuggery” and criminality of the youth who are widening the scope of violence beyond Tottenham and London itself.

The official emphasis on criminality cannot hide a number of things that depict a reality that s a far cry from royal bliss. The youth involved, while criminally opportunistic in their looting and vandalism, are a mix of ethnicities, but all seeming of working class or unemployed status (On TV I actually saw some young Hassidic Jews amongst the rioters in Tottenham). Some may have participated in earlier demonstrations and rioting about restrictions on access to higher education and the cost of basic services. They appear to be coordinated–in yet another tweeter and smart phone fashion–enough to stay a step ahead of the thinly stretched British Police. The fire service is not attending to full alarm fires because of fears for their security and the Police cannot predict when the next smash, burn and grab will happen. The mob is ahead of the Man, and the mob is angry.

So far the British government has declined to send in the army even though suggestions have been made that they have very robust anti-riot capabilities in Northern Ireland. The language used to justify that non-action is precious: the government states that it does not deploy such hard assets on British soil. So the riot police in London chase rioters using shields, helmets, horses and batons while the British Army uses armoured personnel carriers, water cannon trucks and live ammunition to keep the peace in Belfast and beyond. Some Imperial habits are hard to break, even though the Empire is long gone and its post-colonial consequences have come home to roost in the capital itself.

The hard fact is that the criminality of the rioters is a political act whether or not those involved or the government and corporate media would like to admit it. At a time when the PM, Police Commissioner, Mayor of London, and assorted other leading officials were on vacation in places like Ibiza, Tuscany and Milos, the youth now on riotous display swelter in the housing estates where unemployment, racial separatism, ethnic conflict and everyday economic insecurity are rife. Like their counterparts in any number of less developed countries, they can see up close the material lifestyles and commodity consumption of the royals, celebrities, sportsmen and corporate elites, but do not have (and likely will never have) the means of access to them. Worse yet, they live in a world where the institutional framework is stacked against them, leading to the violent turn inwards when the opportunity presents itself. The Police response is to ask parents to lock up their children.

Be it Marx, Luxemburg, Lenin, Guevara, Marighella, Ayman al-Zawahari, or Muqtada al-Sadr, revolutionaries understand the potential of the criminal mass engaged in collective violence. Lumpenproletarians are the street vanguard who, however unconsciously, help to bring social contradictions to a head and expose the weakness of the elite response and the inherent fragility (sclerosis?) of the status quo as a whole. Where instigated or abetted by politically conscious cadres (and there is some evidence of this at play here), their actions are designed to accelerate the organic crisis of the State, in which economic, social and political cleavages overlap and congeal into compound fractures not resolvable by force, reform-mongering or after-the-fact piecemeal pacification. Given the ongoing repercussions of the 2008 recession and the increasingly global debt crisis, and no matter how they are disguised by ethnic and religious division, the structural foundations for a larger class war in the UK may be fixing in place.

This does not mean that the British government will not be able to quell the disturbances this time around. But what these riots may be is a dress rehearsal for more to come, perhaps in conjunction with the Olympics next year, where militant planners accelerate the pace, focus and intensity of mass collective violence at a time when the British elite are exposed to global scrutiny and their security resources are already working at full capacity. That raises the issue of whether the official approach to rioters will shift to the more lethal Northern Irish “solution” set, and whether those charged with adopting a more lethal approach will have the ideological conviction to respond in such a way to the actions of fellow citizens rather than foreigners (I note that it will be possible for the official narrative  to scapegoat “outsiders” drawn from minority ethnic communities that hold non-Western beliefs, but even that may fail to overcome foot soldier or beat police reluctance to turn their weapons on their own).

In any event, we should see the riots for what they really are: an expression of mass subordinate discontent and disaffection, the product of profound alienation, expressed through collective criminal violence operating in seemingly opportunistic and decentralised fashion in the face of official incompetence or lack of will. That, by most reasoning, is a good sign of a pre-revolutionary situation, one that has the potential to become more of an existential threat to the status quo should tactical guidance and coherent ideological justification be given to it. After all, if what we are experiencing is a crisis of capitalism in the liberal democratic world, then it was only a matter of time before superstructural conditions and precipitating events would combine into a violent rejection of the system as given in countries in which the societal contradictions were most apparent. Be it in Greece, in France, in Spain or now in the UK, should these contradictions continue to fester and combine, it will not be Tea Party-type clones that will lead the insurrectionary charge, nor will they be as polite.


PS: Before Red Dave and other ideologically militant readers opine that I am belatedly joining their ranks, let me state that I do not see this as the beginning of a global revolution or necessarily of one in the UK. It is a pre-revolutionary moment, which means that the UK government still has the ability to engage in divide-and-conquer, selective application of force and reform-mongering tactics (along the lines I mentioned with regard to the Arab uprisings in an earlier  post dedicated to them). There is a fair bit of ground to cover before the Arab Spring gives way to a Red European summer.

Does small always have to mean provincial?

datePosted on 14:44, June 15th, 2011 by Pablo

Here is a question for readers. Just because NZ is small does that mean it has to be provincial? Having returned–and happily so–to NZ after a 3+ year absence, I am struck as to how insular public debates tend to be. Leave aside the grating RWC ads and hype. Although it makes much ado about a second tier sporting event, it is being hosted here and there is money to be made as well as sporting prestige on the line. So the hoopla could happen anywhere. I also understand the focus on Christchurch given the earthquakes, but am struck by how most attention is on the human dramas and not on the policy response and consequences of the disasters (which seem to this uninformed eye to be slow and not considerate of long-term implications). More broadly, be it in the tone of political debate, the focus of popular culture, or the economic preoccupations of the moment, it all seem a bit inbred to me. Am I just being precious or unduly judgmental?

I ask because I came back from Singapore, which is small but is incredibly cosmopolitan because of its strategic location and thriving expat culture (native Singaporeans are quite insular as well but have been forced to cope with the influx of more worldly people as part of their national transformation project). Switzerland, San Marino, Andorra, Monaco, Ireland and Malta are small but their location in Europe makes them acutely sensitive to and knowledgeable of their larger neighbour’s actions and interests. The same can be said for Uruguay, surrounded by larger States, or Central American republics, dwarfed by Mexico and the US. This is not to say that the masses as a whole in these countries are always on top of international affairs or erudite in their discussions of global trends, but that they seem to have a better appreciation of the world around them than what is evident in NZ. That seems counter-intuitive.

I say so because the tyranny of distance should have been overcome by advances in telecommunications and transportation, NZ is increasingly a nation of immigrants, including many from non-traditional source countries, its commercial ties are more varied and distant than in earlier generations, its has high standards of literacy and access to news sources, it has a good percentage of citizens returning from OE’s and its diplomatic connections reflect all of these trends. So why is it that, if I am correct, NZ remains rooted in a seemingly mythical short-and-gumboots, rugby-fixated mentality unconcerned about the larger world in which it is inserted? After all, unlike like large states that can “afford” to be ignorant of world affairs because of their economic weight and territorial size (e.g., the US), Kiwis are constantly told that their well-being is directly linked to NZ’s position in the international community. If that is true I would expect that average Kiwis would take an interest in global issues and ask questions of national elites about them.

Why, for example, has the NZ government made no public pronouncements on Syria (and muted comments about Libya) given its purported commitment to human rights? Why has issues like human trafficking, child labour and environmental degradation not entered into the debate about undertaking trade agreements with Asian despotic states? Why have tensions between Fiji and Tonga only been awarded two days of media attention, especially given the role of other powers behind the scenes and NZ’s connections to both countries? Why is there no debate about the NZDF role in Afghanistan given the beginning of the US military withdrawal in July? Why is it assumed that “privatisation” and public expenditure reductions are sacrosanct when in many faster developing parts of the world that are also commodity export-dependent (Latin America, SE Asia) such market-driven zealotry has been abandoned in favour of more judicious public management schemes that see public welfare and employment as requisite part of the social contract (and long-term stability)? Why is draconian anti-terrorist legislation and expansion of domestic intelligence powers passed when NZ security elites admit that the threat of a terrorist event is extremely low and that domestic threats are more likely to be criminal than political in nature (with some of that criminality being a direct result of NZ’s permissive attitude towards trade conditions and regulatory requirements on foreign investment and corporate accountability). Why are national leaders allowed to dismiss those who raise such concerns as extremists or unhinged?

In fact, what the heck happened to policy debates in general? Why is it that when not rugby the entire country seems to be fixated on human dramas and political sleaze rather than the pressing issues that impact they very way society is organised?

I realise that NZ may not be alone in this syndrome, should it in fact be real. It just strikes me as incongruous that a country with such an abundance of human capital should be so inward-focused, especially if it’s material, social and political status is directly connected to, and dependent upon, its ties to the outside world. Provincialism may serve the interests of elites who can govern and do business without considered scrutiny so long as a few popular sops are thrown the public’s way, but it seems to me to be an unfortunate comment on national consciousness if indeed it is a reality rather than a figment of my imagination.

Ending my academic career.

datePosted on 22:20, April 15th, 2011 by Pablo

This is a personal note. I have finished classes at the National University of Singapore, ending my visiting professorship at that institution. Although I have some marking to do before I wind things up at NUS, it looks to be the last time that I will grace a classroom. Rather than with a bang, I am going out quietly (although not quite whimpering). The moment is bittersweet.

Some detractors and malicious rumor-mongers notwithstanding, I have generally had very good evaluations by students in the four countries in which I have taught. I have also enjoyed having the library access and other support that goes with university employment, which has allowed me to research and write on over a dozen issues and countries spanning the fields of comparative and international politics. The output has been good–3 books, over 50 scholarly articles, chapters, reviews and monographs, more than 120 opinion and editorial essays and a a swag of nice fellowships, including Fulbright, Heinz, Tinker and Kellogg research fellowships as well as an Asia-Pacific Rim University fellowship the year before Auckland dispensed with me. All in all it was a decent ride (to say nothing of comparable with what passes for the best of contemporary NZ political scientists) and I still have research and writing projects to complete that will keep me busy after my return to NZ in June.

What I am less thrilled about is having to leave academia in the first place, which is a result of my contratemps with Auckland University. That resulted in my de facto blacklisting in NZ academia and a besmirching of my reputation abroad.  I have applied for over 30 academic positions, including twice at Otago and three times at Victoria, without even making it past the first round in spite of being amply qualified for all of the listings (some at universities of less repute when compared to the ones I have taught at and with academic staff with far less credentials than mine (NUS is placed 30 places above Auckland in international rankings). The fact that I was eventually vindicated in my employment dispute, and found to be correct in my assessment that the student excuse that led to my unjustified dismissal at the hands of the current Auckland University management turned out to be, as I suspected, a ruse rather than a verifiable fact, matters little now. My name has been sullied to the point that I am no longer employable in my chosen and long-held (25 years) career. I often wonder if I have a case for defamation given that I was called a racist and a few other choice epithets in the aftermath of the email exchange that led to my dismissal (those accusations still circulate on the internet and were mentioned by NUS officials when they initially cancelled my visiting professorship, only to relent when I won the ERA case). What I cannot undo is my (admittedly rude) email, the reaction of NZ university managers when they see my name, or the internet-generated taint associated with it.

Some readers may see my revisiting of this theme as whinging, and it is, a bit. But my reflection is also about comparative loss and gains: I have been ejected from academia while the duplicitous student and university managers were rewarded for their unethical behavior. People like Tony Veitch and Paul Henry (to say nothing of a bunch of email abusers) do worse things and keep their careers. That sucks, for me in particular but also as a general principle.

I am fortunate to have a partner who has secured an academic position in NZ so that we can return, and that I have enough political risk consulting experience to start a dedicated consultancy along those lines, the first such in NZ, as an alternative. But I remain wistful about the classroom door closing. The class was, for me, a moment in which I could reveal another persona, one far more extroverted than my usual self, in order to communicate the language, concepts and importance of politics to undergrad and grad students. It was a wonderful moment when I got out of my skin and put the full emotive weight into my feelings about politics. It was a moment when I relived what I did in past lives and what I hoped for the future. It was, in sum, a moment that I could not capture, nor would I expect would be accepted, outside the classroom. Taken together over the course of more than two decades, those are moments that I relish and which I will miss, and which I believe I should have been allowed to enjoy for years to come.

As for students, I can only say that the top ten percent of undergrads in any country that I have taught are world class, the bottom ten percent should not be at university, and the rest divide out according to how hard they work. NZ students were, I hate to say it, particularly lazy and prone to lame excuses about their failure to meet obligations and fulfill assignments, something that foreign exchange students picked up on and elaborated–a syndrome that eventually did me in.

For the record, I should note that the NZ student excuses–95 percent of which were offered the day before, the day of, or after the assignment was due, with no proof of any work done on the assignment (which I made a point of requesting to see if progress towards completion had been made)–were culturally and nationality-driven: Pakeha and white exchange students offered computer and relationship failures as the reason for the failure to complete on time; Pacific Islanders, Asian and Middle Easterners offered family tragedies as the excuse (as a comparative cultural aside, the main excuse of NUS students is food poisoning, given the Singaporean national penchant for eating at unhygenic outdoors food hawker stalls. The trouble is that 10 percent of the student population comes down with food poisoning on the same week at the end of the semester, and they all did eat not in the same place. That is statistically improbable, especially when repeated year after year like the NZ excuses).

In 99 percent of the cases the student offered no proof of the excuse, and as it turns out, because of the volume of students with excuses given towards the end of the semester, the university health centre at Auckland does not bother asking for them for proof of bereavement or physical or emotional distress before issuing medical and mental health certificates. University Health just accepts the student’s word as to the ailment, in concert with the amount of extension requests increasing 100-fold during the last week of classes or exam week. In other words, ask for a medical or mental health certificate for an extension early in the semester, one might be asked for proof. Ask for a mental health or medical certificate at the end of the semester when the rush of extension requests is on, then no proof is required. There is a claim of right in this process, and it is perverse.

Phrased politely,  the extension-issuance system at Auckland U. is being gamed, and the university managers actively connive in the play because the point of the university is to keep fees-paying “consumers” happy regardless of academic merit (As things turned out, no mental health certificate was ever presented by the student involved in my case).

This may be an uncomfortable fact for people to deal with, but it gives an idea of the pressures lecturers (and university health professionals) are faced with when it comes to marking in a “bums in seats,” profit-before-quality educational atmosphere. As for the serious students–they always alerted me as soon as possible to a family or personal problem, showed me the work they had begun on the assignment, and inevitably were granted an extension that was fair to them as well as the rest of the class. 

Whatever the case, the vast majority of students, be it in the US, NZ, Singapore or Chile (where I taught briefly as a visitor), were responsive to what I had to say and what I was trying to convey. Which is why I am left with this: if any of the 5000+ students I have taught has left my classes informed about something that they did not know before they entered the class, then I did my job. If they went on to inform their lives with some of that knowledge, that is icing on the cake.

I suspect I have left some icing on the cake.

The Reluctant Ringnut

datePosted on 20:23, March 21st, 2011 by Lew

Since the 5.1 magnitude aftershock on the evening of March 20, various Ringnuts — that is, people who take Ken Ring’s moonie earthquake “predictions” seriously — have been saying things along the lines of “SEE ITS TRUE HE TOLD YOU AND YOU DIDN’T LISTEN!” Their ranks include people who really should know better, who’re revealing that when faced with a bit of smoke and a couple of mirrors they’re as credulous as the next rube.

Such as Brian Edwards, who asks “So – was Ken Ring right or wrong?”, and after arraying a series of banal and rigourless equivocations, attempts to turn scepticism on its head by appealing to the old charlatan’s fallback: cosmic uncertainty, man. We don’t really know anything, so everything’s as good as everything else, man.

The trouble is that Brian’s banal and rigourless equivocations — I’ll not repeat them here — are of a piece with those issued by Ken Ring, and that’s the whole point. Brian tries to have a lazy bob each way on the question of whether Ring is right or wrong. Ring has a bob in each of a dozen different ways, from earthquakes of unspecified magnitude across a very wide area, or possibly a weather event of unspecified nature, occurring in a very broad span of time; or possibly nothing at all. The predictive uselessness these banal and rigourless equivocations have been very thoroughly thrashed out in the past month — notably by David Winter, Alison Campbell [edit to add: and Grant Jacobs]. The punchline is that it would have been a shock if his “prediction”, such as it was, had not “come true”.

What separates the Ringnuts (both the reluctant, who claim the mantle of scepticism, and the True Believers) from the rest of us is the realisation that, given the nature of Ring’s “predictions” it is impossible to answer Brian’s question, “Was Ken Ring right or wrong?”. Ken Ring doesn’t give us a testable prediction, so we can’t even get to the point of assessing its rightness or wrongness. Ken Ring is neither right nor wrong. He doesn’t even get to the point of being wrong, since he hasn’t said anything meaningful.

Given all of this, being wrong would be a considerable improvement for Ken Ring.


The Road to Academic Taylorism.

datePosted on 20:57, March 11th, 2011 by Pablo

The labour dispute involving the University of Auckland and the Tertiary Education Union (TEU) is the culmination of more than a decade of escalating conflict between the university management and its employees that began during the tenure of former Vice Chancellor John Hood. If Hood, who was VC from 1998 to 2004, was a scalpel designed to eviscerate the union, then his successor Stuart McCutcheon is a sledgehammer focused on bludgeoning the staff into submission. The root of both VC’s hostility to the union lies in their adherence to the so-called “new management” theories that are popular in the private sector (Hood had no academic background prior to his appointment, while McCutcheon was a physiologist prior to being appointed Head of the Department of Animal Sciences at Massey University before holding higher administration positions at that university and later VC of Victoria University). Before arriving at Auckland both men cultivated reputations for being anti-union and ruthless when it came to staff cuts in pursuit of cost savings.

The application of “new management” techniques is nothing more than corporate-speak for imposing modern Taylorist practices on the academe (On Taylorism, see here). The idea is to turn all staff into regulated production units with as little independence and autonomy as possible, in a system where they discharge responsibilities allocated them by the non-academic central management (which has grown significantly at Auckland while the teaching staff has diminished), and in which their “output” is evaluated on spreadsheets and so-called performance based reviews (PBRFs) administered by the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) rather than by disciplinary peer reviewers. In this scheme Deans, Associate Deans and department heads become “line managers” for the VC rather than as representatives of their faculties or departments, and staff are made to log in their hours, leave time and generally operate as if they were on an assembly line or phone bank service centre. The primary goal of academic Taylorism is to generate revenue by securing research funding, increasing full time (and increasingly foreign) student enrollments (EFTS) while maintaining or cutting staff levels (thereby increasing staff workloads), and making the university more “corporate-friendly” by encouraging business-related disciplines while eliminating those that are not. Under these schemes, the bottom line of the university is no longer to serve as critic and conscience of society and as a generator of creative talent and broad-based knowledge. It is to pursue the bottom line.

As a result, quality of education and scholarly contribution have now given way as the basis for individual and collective advancement and recognition to quantity of enrollments and research outputs regardless of merit. Be it in admitting unqualified foreign students, lowering academic standards to increase passing rates, publishing shallow edited volumes based upon academic crony conferences or listing magazine articles and media commentary as evidence of “research,” the university has forsaken its charter.

The problem is that the “new management” approach has no understanding of the intellectual enterprise or the nature of academic life. Ideas are not merely “outputs” and are not generated in a cubicle farm setting. New ideas and the resolution of complex problems can be generated on a bus, or during a long run on a beach, or over a cup of coffee while gazing out the window at some pretty greenery. Lectures are not merely a means of conveying power point presentations. Intellectual worth is not reducible to its profit-making potential, and intellectual life is more than being at the service of business or focused on technical disciplines with commodified economic worth. Some creative ventures or disciplines, say modern dance or the Classics, are important not because of their money-making capabilities but because they are expressions and reaffirmations of the human spirit in all of its manifestations. That is what universities are for, and that cannot be quantified on a time clock or spreadsheet.

Because of this, the University of Auckland management and its staff have been locked in a morale-sapping struggle over the future of the university. While Mr. Hood approached the union (then known as AUS) in an adversarial manner, he was at least fairly transparent about his intentions and appeared to understand that there were limits to the imposition of Taylorist practices on academic life. Mr. McCutcheon and his senior team, on the other hand, have adopted an overtly hostile scorched earth approach to the academic staff and union, a stance that has seen management engage in extremely dubious and highly unethical practices such as the falsification and destruction of documents, the intimidation, constructive and unjustified dismissal of staff, and the litigation rather than mediation of employment disputes using vast sums of taxpayer funding to pay corporate legal defense fees (from Simpson-Grierson) and PR representation. The Human Resources department and individuals such as John Morrow (Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic), who was brought by McCutcheon with him from Victoria), are notorious for their bullying and stand-over tactics, using techniques that often times would amount to serious misconduct and border on criminal behaviour if done by anyone else (note that I am only referring here to a limited range of questionable practices and have not delved into issues regarding management relationship with foreign governments that supply students, senior staff travel expenditures and personal misconduct that goes unpunished).

The reason why the Auckland University management has adopted this approach is three-fold: first, because its intention is to destroy the union, pure and simple. Second, because under the current employment climate and labor legislation, it can do so with impunity. And third, because the tertiary sector union has allowed it to do so by adopting mistaken and now possibly terminal negotiating strategies in the past.

Under the leadership of Helen Kelly, the then AUS preferred to emphasise wage increases in the face of inflation rather than working conditions and academic integrity and autonomy. Year after year the sole focus of union negotiators was on wages, for which the union was willing to incrementally give away staff prerogatives when it came to teaching loads, recruitment and retention, and even the elimination of entire disciplines (such as Russian and Indonesian language instruction). The problem with this strategy was first, it elicited little sympathy from the wider public because as things stand people believe that academics are overpaid and under-worked relative to the “real” world (when I left the university my salary was over NZ$102,000 as a Senior Lecturer 5, so I can see how the public would think that). Secondly, because the union only represents thirty-odd percent of the academic staff (the overall percentage of organized university staff increased after 2009 with amalgamation of the AUS and the Association of Staff in Tertiary Education (ASTE), which covers university administrative staff, but still does not cover the majority of academic staff), the university management could undercut union negotiations by offering separate wage packages to unorganised staff on individual contracts, thereby forcing the union to eventually relent and accept the same deal as the unorganised staff in exchange for the university retaining the collective contract governing other aspects of the employment relationship not subject–yet–to managerial discretion. This process of stalled negotiations, threatened industrial action and on several occasions strikes themselves did not hinder management’s steady, yearly erosion of the basic terms of employment.

In fact, rather than trade wage restraint for a halt to managerial intrusions into workplace autonomy and research and teaching independence, the union stubbornly clung to the wage/inflation parity fixation. By the mid 2000s, every year it wound up settling for the wages unorganised staff had agreed to and slowly but steadily found itself subject to increased management control of basic working conditions regardless of the specifics of the academic discipline or the nature of research involved. As Taylor would have had it, academic synthesizing was in play.

Ms. Kelley’s mistake was that she sought to preserve the union’s agency by trading incremental wage gains for non-wage concessions when confronting an opponent that was most interested in destroying the union. This was evident in her approach to forced redundancies and constructive or unjustified dismissals, which was to seek monetary settlement rather than go to court even if this meant the end of the union member’s academic career. Since the university has money to burn for such things, this approach played neatly into its hands.

And so it happens that this year McCutcheon and his wrecking crew minions have made their boldest move. After gradually tightening leave requirements, increasing on-site hours and teaching and research (make) workloads, adding administrative chores (such as the endless paperwork associated with the PBRF and Annual Performance Reviews) loosening burden of proof standards in employment disputes and restricting opportunities for academic staff to work off-campus without penalty, the university has proposed to eliminate research and study leave and have disciplinary matters removed from from the collective contract (research leave is now guaranteed for one semester every three years subject to the submission of a viable research proposal estimating costs, itineraries etc., and disciplinary procedures–which have been repeatedly breached by the management anyway–are outlined in the collective contract) as well as remove a number of clauses in the contract governing the non-wage employment conditions of the staff (these include ongoing changes to promotion criteria and guidelines that make it easier for managers to deny or confirm promotions based on on non-standardised assessment measures). In exchange, the university has offered an increase in annual leave from four to five weeks for all staff along with a four percent pay increase. McCutcheon’s attitude is clear, as he has stated to the press that he believes that universities should not be encumbered by employment agreements that constrain management’s ability to dictate policy. Taylor would be proud.

Unlike Ms. Kelly, the new TEU president, Sandra Grey, is an academic who knows the inside of a classroom and the research requirements inherent in academic employment. Finally realizing the real stakes involved, the TEU has responded by asking Auckland members to refuse to engage in the annual PBRF exercises that help determine the amount of research funding that the university receives from the government. The PBRF, which is a glorious time and energy-consuming make-work exercise introduced the early 2000s as part of the new managerial approach to research funding, is considered to be the holy grail for the management bean counters in the Clock Tower and VC’s office, so naturally enough McCutcheon has shown his bully self by threatening that any reductions in PBRF funding caused by staff refusal to perform the exercise could result in dismissals (ignoring the fact that staff numbers are below those of the pre-PBRF days and that enrollments are up, which means that he would have to reduce course offerings and turn away students in the measure that he fires lecturers, or at a minimum replace them with less-qualified personnel). The union has responded with a PR and media campaign and promised more direct action if the VC’s proposal is not withdrawn. At the moment both sides are at an impasse. Truth be told, in the contemporary economic, political and social climate and given its member numbers as a percentage of the overall academic workforce, this is a very risky act of TEU brinkmanship.

It will be interesting to see what will happen if this confrontation continues. But one thing is sure: this is the TEU’s last stand in Auckland. If it loses this battle then it will be destroyed as a credible agent for the interests of the Auckland University staff. And once that domino has fallen, it will not be long before management in other NZ universities will follow suit and adopt the sledgehammer approach towards union branch-busting in the pursuit of academic Taylorism. At that point the notion of “the academe” will have ceased to exist in New Zealand.

PS: Less you think I am off track, check this out from someone who still works at Auckland University  (hence the diplomatic and deferential tone).

Blog Link: Ending one chapter and starting another.

datePosted on 20:33, September 29th, 2010 by Pablo

Its the end of days for me in one sense, but perhaps the beginning of something new in a few months or so. More details on the latter prospect as it develops.

You can’t mess with the messers

datePosted on 17:43, July 2nd, 2010 by Lew

[Note: Idiot/Savant stole my initial title for this post — word for word! — forcing me to get more creative. The definitive version is here. Not sure about the video, though.]

Education minister Anne Tolley has tacitly threatened to go nuclear on primary principals who refuse to comply with National Standards directives, or who speak out against them. In a speech to the Principals’ Federation conference in Queenstown today, she said:

It’s much quicker [contacting me with concerns] and you will get results, rather than going to the media and making threats, which is just politicking, and achieves little.
And while we’re on that subject, you are pretty unique among public servants who can speak freely in the media. May I remind you that I made representations to make sure that continues.
However – no public servants have ever been granted the privilege of picking and choosing which Government laws they choose to administer. Lawyers, accountants and all the other professionals working in Ministries can offer opinions. But it’s the Government that makes policy decisions.

Now, there’s an implication here that the minister might retract her “representations” to make sure that the rights of teachers to speak freely are preserved, but there’s nothing to this. Any move to constrain teachers’ views or their expression would immediately draw furious and justified denunciations of the government for politicising and propagandising the education system, such as no liberal political movement could withstand.

In the final analysis she’s 100% correct about the government setting policy and the sector implementing it. By way of remedy, the ministry can take over the running of a school which fails to implement education policies adequately, and Trevor Mallard suggests the ERO has already started heavying truculent schools to set an example to others.

But it is an empty threat. For one thing, you can’t play the bossy schoolmarm with schoolteachers and principals — they wrote the book on it, and know all the tricks of the game, having put up with them from students for their entire professional lives. Not to mention that, as career educators they have far more invested in the quality of their education system than a minister who’s only been in the job two years and could be gone in the next cabinet reshuffle.

More crucially, though, the minister is up against old-fashioned collective action: a heavily unionised workforce which knows it is indispensable and irreplaceable. So what happens if it’s not just one school? What happens if it’s a dozen, or a hundred, or almost all the primary schools in the greater Auckland area, or the schools of two National heartland electorate regions at either end of the country, or as much as 94% of the sector overall?

Later in the speech, Tolley said:

I’ll say it again – we are going to get this right, for the students, and for their parents.

But when push comes to shove, National Standards simply cannot be implemented by fiat. Teachers, directed by principals, are those who must undertake the implementation of the policy. While I cite them reluctantly because I don’t entirely agree, it’s somewhat like what the Randians are saying about Obama’s response to the BP oil spill: no amount of threat or bluster can provide any additional incentive to progress a cleanup whose failure or undue delay will spell a certain end to the company. No matter how you slice it, there are not enough Ministry of Education staff members, non-unionised part-time relievers or teachers who are happy with National Standards as proposed to do the complex and important work of assessing all the students who need to be assessed; cataloguing, moderating and communicating those assessments to parents and the ministry in a coherent manner. This is ignoring the fact that you can’t simply parachute a compliant teacher or apparatchik into an unfamiliar classroom and have them do it with any legitimacy. The teachers who stand up in front of that class of kids day-in and day-out are the only ones who can properly assess them, and they know it.

The sector also knows it’s in the right. Educators’ opposition to National Standards is neither ideological nor capricious, and they have have consistently levelled principled and pragmatic arguments against only the proposed implementation of the policy, backed by the best local and international experts in the field. They support assessment standards in principle, and have repeatedly suggested reasonable alternatives to the proposed implementation. The problem isn’t with their willingness to work with the minister; it’s that the minister isn’t interested in working with the sector.

So ultimately one of two things will happen: one side or the other will compromise sufficiently for the issue to progress, or the minister will be faced either with backing down in abject failure or sacking a significant proportion of the education workforce, with the consequent failure of the policy by default, not to mention a massive outcry from parents who’re forced to take time off work because their kids can’t go to school (and from their bosses, and bank managers, and almost everyone else). There’s no better way to bring the country to its knees.

Tangentially, this situation illustrates a branding risk I’ve been meaning to post on for a while: if you name a policy initiative after your party or some other core bit of your identity, you had better be damned sure you can get it through to full implementation without a hitch, lest its failure tarnish your good brand. Quite apart from any concerns with the policy, his National government has failed to do so with its National Standards. Not only is the policy programme and its attempted implementation against the wishes of the only people who can implement it a catastrophic mistake, but its naming looks like a spectacular failure as well. If it’s not pulled out of the fire soon, in future, all National’s political enemies will have to do to score a point is recount some of the more embarrassing events of this episode and say “these are National’s Standards”. It’s already happening — I’ve seen that very sentence used at Red Alert, for instance, regarding something unrelated to education reform. Instant conversion of a wonkish policy criticism to a gut-level identity observation which will resonate with the folk who just wanted their kids to go to school, those who wanted nothing more than to teach them as best they could, and ultimately the kids themselves. For this reason, my instinct is that the long-term damage to National’s brand and electability on this matter will become too high a price to pay for the perceived win over the sector, and those with a more strategic view of National’s situation will require that the wound be cauterised. Although it’s a backdown, over the long term this will be good for the party. More importantly, it will be good for the country.


In other news, 50% of teachers are below average

datePosted on 14:13, February 2nd, 2010 by Lew

30 per cent of teachers need to lift their game – Key.

Honestly. Anyone who thinks this is a meaningful statement needs remedial numeracy work themselves.


Great prospects

datePosted on 21:15, January 29th, 2010 by Lew

Hat tipped to Paul McBeth for this one.

As one side engages in some tentative but hugely premature triumphalism, and the other side points the accusatory finger, a sleeping giant awakes. This man — our Nixon, in whom we apparently see ourselves as we really are — has rekindled the fire which once consumed the hearts and minds of the nation (and the knickers of untold women old enough to know better) and thrown himself with renewed fervour into the task of “getting his old job back”.

Thanks either to wicked humour or outright shamelessness on the part of Auckland University political science staff, Winston Peters has been granted the unlikeliest of springboards to launch his 2010 campaign to return to the Beehive in 2011: a lecture to (presumably first year) political science students on the MMP political system. Of course, if they’d wanted a serious lecture on the topic, any number of graduate (and even some of the more geeky undergraduate) students could have done it, but the choice of Winnie was inspired because, instead of just telling these young things the dry facts and functions of the system — let’s face it, they can learn that from a book or even wikipedia.* But here’s a chance for them to learn how the system works in actual fact, from someone who has used it to screw others and been screwed himself, and to learn all that from someone who, just coincidentally, is in a position to demonstrate that no matter how down and out a politician might seem, under MMP he’s only one voter in twenty away from the marble floors, dark wood and green leather benches which house our democratic institutions.

The speech itself is the saga of the heroic battlers who guided the noble, fragile MMP system through the minefields of bureaucracy, persevering despite the “inner cabal cherishing hidden agendas” intent upon bringing about its premature demise. Those heroic battlers were represented by New Zealand First, epitomising the “traditional values of New Zealand politics”; “capitalism with a kind, responsible face”; the “long established social contract of caring for the young and the old and those who were down on their luck through no fault of their own”; a strong, honest party which was forced into coalition with National, although even then the dirty hacks in the media failed to correctly report these facts.

It’s a wonderful story, a fabulous creation myth, and if you’ve listened to Winston’s speeches over the years, none of it will be foreign to you.

But the speech dwells upon the darker, more recent history of MMP, and particularly its perversion by the forces of separatism. This initially seems odd for a speech which praises MMP, but it makes perfect sense when you consider the wider narrative: you can’t rescue something which isn’t in trouble, and the wider narrative is, naturally enough, that Winston is here to rescue New Zealand from MMP and the separatists — blue and brown — who have overtaken it. This is done, in true Winstonian style, with a masterful play on words:

You’ve all heard or seen the British comedy TV show “the two Ronnies” – well we have our own comedy show starring the “two Hones”. Hone, of course, is Maori for John – and the two “Hones” don’t give a “Heke” about who they insult on Waitangi Day.

If you listen closely, you might almost be able to hear the sound of undergraduates giggling nervously, and more quietly but present nevertheless, the sound of confused and frustrated battlers who don’t see what they stand to gain out of any of the current political orthodoxy starting to think “you know, Winston wasn’t so bad after all.”

So, Winston is back. For the record, I still don’t think he’s got the winnings of an election in him without the endorsement of an existing player, and I think it’s better than even money that he would drag any endorser down with him. His credibility is shot to hell, and this is a naked attempt to reach out to a Labour party who have just begun to put a little historical distance between themselves and him, but it will be very tempting for a Labour party struggling to connect with the electorate. If we as a nation are very, very unfortunate, Labour’s failure to reinvent themselves and the illusory success among some of the usual suspects of the “blue collars, red necks” experiment last year — notably not repeated in this week’s speech — will cause them to reach out for the one thing they lack: a political leader who understands narrative, who possesses emotional intelligence and political cunning in spades, who knows how to let an audience know who he is and what he stands for, and make them trust him (sometimes despite all the facts), and who has a ready-made constituency of disgruntled battlers who feel (rightly or wrongly) that the system doesn’t work for them.

Please, let it not come to that.


* Incidentally, it may come as a surprise to some of you that these dry facts and procedural details were the reason I dropped out of PoliSci in my first year, and studied Film instead (before realising that it all came back to politics anyway).

Plagarism and Double Standards.

datePosted on 19:07, November 21st, 2009 by Pablo

I was not going to post on the Witi Ihimaera plagarism scandal, having commented under my own name on another blog that covered the matter. But as I compare my summary dismissal for writing a rude email to an unqualified and underperforming student with the lack of even a cursory reprimand for his theft of intellectual property, and then find out that apparently it is not the first time that Mr. Ihimaera has appropriated someone else’s work as his own, I find myself wondering if indeed there is a double standard at play when it comes to our respective treatment by my former employer. Let me explain why, but first point to the one consistency in the handling of both cases.

The University has, as part of its collective contract with the union representing academic staff, a series of procedures and regulations that have to be followed before an academic staff member can be dismissed for serious misconduct. This includes receiving a formal complaint detailing the misconduct, attempting to mediate the matter using the offices of the Ombudsman, handling the matter within the department, issuing two formal written warnings before dismissal is sought…the requirements are pretty detailed and in fact were made even more so after my dismissal precisely because of the controversy surrounding it. Perhaps Mr. Ihimaera is not a member of the union so other procedures were followed, but that usually mitigates against favorable resolution for the employee.

In my case none of the internal procedures were honoured other than as a facade. No formal written complaint was ever made against me, but without getting my side of the story the Ombuds(person) immediately brought the issue to the attention of my department HOD, who without saying a word to me passed it on to the Dean, who after consulting with the student as to what should be done held a series of brief meetings with me and a union rep in which he shrugged off my apologies and assurances, ignored the fact I had no prior formal warnings, and sent me packing. In fact, he and his HR advisors attempted to use a couple of unrelated events from the past (an argument with a former HOD about managerial practices and an email disagreement with a colleague about a grad student who failed to attend a class) to argue that prior warnings had been given. Those were later found to be irrelevant by the ERA.

In Mr. Ihimaera’s case it appears that, upon hearing that news of the plagarism was about to go public, the University rapidly pushed through an “investigation” of the matter apparently involving his HOD, the new Dean of Arts (who was not the Dean the fired me) and Mr. Ihimaera. No disciplinary board with colleagues outside of the HoD and Dean was apparently convened. Mr. Itimaera  gave apologies and assurances, and the case was closed.

What is consistent in both cases is that the lengthy rules and procedures for handling discipline cases involving academics were circumvented, in his case favourably to him and in my case not. This galls me not because I think that Mr. Ihimaera should be fired–I do not, and think that both of us should have received a final written reprimand about our respective transgressions–but because the University argued that I was fired because of the damage I did to its reputation. This line of argument continued after the dismissal was found to be unjustified, then into the settlement agreement by which formal reinstatement meant no actual reinstatement. But what about my reputation? Not only did the leaked email wind up on the front page of the national newspaper and then went global, but the University did nothing to prevent its release or demand its withdrawal when a student newspaper under its authority first published it (even though leaking the email was a violation of the email policy under which I was ostensibly fired). Moreover, the University knew well what the impact of the dismissal would be. As the Dean who fired me said to the ERA, “in a reputation-based business like academia, summary dismissal essentially means the end of a career.” In my case that seems to be proving true, and perhaps it was that knowledge that made for lighter treatment for Mr. Ihimaera–but I suspect not, simply because his association with academia was one of mutual convenience rather than professional necessity.

My major question is, if what I did was so injurious to the University reputation, what about Mr. Ihimaera’s plagarism? Plagarism is the single worst thing that an academic can do. Working in a genre such as historical fiction does not excuse the lifting of other’s words. Plus, being housed within an academic institution means adhering to its requirements on original work, so he was, in fact, more duty bound than independent writers in that regard. Students get failed and often expelled for plagarism. Academic staff get demoted or fired for plagarism. And Mr Ihimaera did not even merit a reprimand? Now, it seems that the case gets worse, as others have come forth to claim that Mr. Ihimaera has plagarised in his previous work. If so, and if the University knew about those previous incidents, then its absolution of the latest episode is even more alarming.

The University and Mr. Ihimaera say that his plagarism was “inadvertent” and thus excusable. Even if that were true–and it stretches credulity to think that a famous author would not know the difference between his own words and sentence structure and those of others– standard guidelines on plagarism, including those specifically used and distributed by the University to students and staff, state that inadvertent or unknowing plagarism is no excuse for it. It is the author’s responsibility to ensure his/her work is original and properly cited, and the crosses all academic fields and intellectual genres.

Some have claimed that because Mr. Ihimaera is Maori, famous and gay, he got off lightly. I initially thought that was ludicrous and that there were other mitigating circumstances at play. But the more I learn about the case and think about the differences in our treatment, the more I wonder as to why those differences. Certainly universal institutional standards need to be upheld over and above the specific identity and interests of any individual. That is what the University claimed in my case. Yet, was what I did worse than plagarism? Did my email to an individual student cause more damage to the University than the discovery by a book reviewer in a national magazine of the as of then unattributed passages in Mr. Ihimaera’s latest book? How can he not even receive a reprimand, and how can the University claim that in both cases its standard rules and procedures were followed to the letter?

The real shame is that it is not my actions or Mr. Ihimaera’s that have tainted the reputation of the University. Instead, it is playing loose with the rules and attempts to “spin” both stories in a way that gives the illusion of procedures being properly followed that sullies the brand. That has a negative impact not only on the managerial cadre that are the perpetrators of the double standard but also the staff, alumni, current and prospective students who share association with the University name. Yet, instead of being ashamed and contrite, University managers continue to obfuscate and bluster, refusing to reveal how their “investigation” of the Ihimaera case was conducted citing privacy concerns (concerns they were not so concerned about when my email went public).  It appears that management are blissfully unaware that the ship is sinking beneath them or else are confident that no matter what they do, they will not be held to account by anyone other than themselves. Since the taxpayers ultimately pay the salaries of all involved, that should be a matter of public interest.