The Road to Academic Taylorism.

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).

5 thoughts on “The Road to Academic Taylorism.

  1. And yet. and yet. A very interesting piece Pablo, with the balance of the herald link.

    There is a Times of London comparison of the worlds top 200 universities that had Auckland at about 52 which would have made it eighth in the UK, competing with the like of LSE, UCL and Imperial College.

    So the university must be doing something right now. I started off thinking to disagree with you. There is something to the systems of accountability and transparency of performance. By collecting that data it can be demonstrated to potential students and funders, thereby increasing the volume and quantity of education. 15,000 students to 40,000 with an obvious maintenance of quality indicates something is being done right. There is a place for what you call Taylorism but not as be all and end all where learning is concerned.

    Where we agree is to balk at the centralisation of control and to depict staff as being employees. That is fundamental.

    I am reading a fascinating book called Obliquity and commend it to you. The author analyses how those like Enron, Phil Condit bankers etc who have directly pursued things like profit and “maximised shareholder value” have failed whereas those who have had non monetary goals and have pursued “making the worlds best airplanes” or designing the best personal electronics like Boeing pre condit and Steve Jobs have excelled.

    The analysis applies well to learning at a University. It cannot be reduced to a set of metrics but equally in a competitive market to provide education the ability to demonstrate transparency and quality is a valuable tool.

  2. Phil:

    I believe that it may be McCutcheon’s autocratic attitude rather than his misapplication of managerial theories that has led to the current situation. The man, and those he has chosen to surround himself with, have two common traits: an arrogant disdain for anything other than their own shared view of things, and a bully’s approach to difference and dissent. Of course these are anathema to the cosmopolitan nature of academia, where the free exchange of ideas is supposed to be the motor force of the common enterprise.

    The hollowing out of tenure during the last 15 years (which in NZ never meant what it means in the US in terms of job guarantees) and the use of dismissals to punish those who would challenge the managerial fiat (as well as deter those who would) has created a situation that I would label as “survivalist alienation” within Auckland Uni: it is everyone for themselves within a generalised atmosphere of fear and uncertainty. That includes union members.

    That is why I believe that Auckland’s ranking is bogus. If it is legit it rides on the reputation of medical researchers and some hard science innovators, but anyone with common sense can see that for all the new buildings going up the morale and quality of intellectual output generated by the university community as a whole has deteriorated markedly. The place where I am currently a visitor, the National University of Singapore, is ranked 27th in the latest survey of 13,000 academicians world-wide, and while it has its flaws it is exponentially better in its treatment and funding of staff and administrative personnel (in an authoritarian political system that reaches into upper level management, to boot). In other words: the managerial regime at Auckland is despotic when compared to that of a leading university in a less open society.

    The shame is that the Auckland Uni. Board of Regents just re-appointed the despot to another four year term in spite of the bad press the university has garnered over its approach to employment policy and individual disputes like mine. That means that the Regents are either clueless or of the same mindset as McCutcheon and his lap dogs. Whichever the case, that speaks poorly of them and even worse for the future of those employed in that increasingly tight iron cage.

  3. Good analysis Pablo. But I don’t share your view of the traditional university as something that we can return to (if that’s what you’re suggesting. In those days the varsity’s job was to reproduce the ruling class. Its role was to replenish the inbred dullards of the rich with new blood to maintain a secular priesthood for what was a feudal anachronism.

    But unis now function to reproduce the knowledge economy in capitalist society. The bully is doing his job as the Ford manager mass producing credentials. But since unis are now openly competing for funding in the market and rated as if listed on the sharemarket, their fate is sealed. Capitalism is rotting from the head down, and unis are the cerebral cortex.

    So I agree with your point that the union has stymied itself by playing the Taylor catchup game instead of sticking with self-rule. But it can’t be the old Oxbridge self-rule of the elect, it has to be the self-rule of the whole academic community – I would say the graduate body plus the academic body electing all the officers.

    Meanwhile as with all the shit that is being dumped on us in this country there is only one immediate solution, dump the NACTs and embarrass the hell out of that pathetic nullified Labour Party to stand up for some fundamental principles of social equality and political freedom. A start would be to return to a fully funded university of NZ. 8 unis competing some in the same cities in a country of 4 million is a joke.

  4. I see Mr McCutcheon’s response to Nigel Haworth in todays NZ Herald backs up a number of your assertions Pablo.

    Kinda ironic, I recall Nigel from the late 80s examining from an academic standpoint, as in part of his job, rather than the kiwi vernacular of ‘academic’ meaning removed from real life, a similar phenomenon as he is now experiencing.

    He facilitated meetings and reports etc. around the soon to be deregulated NZ car assembly industry. An industry based on import substitution and CKD packs that had the socially useful feature of employment for thousands of New Zealanders in Nelson, Lower Hutt, Thames fer crissakes, and Auckland. Once globalised production got rolling the party was always going to be over, but the local swine employers tried to squeeze a bit more out with the “Nissan Way” Kai Zen and similar micro management schemes.

    At that time the change makers, in NZ, were the car industry bosses and a compliant major union, (alright the now EPMU) railing against ‘Taylorism’ and pushing ‘devolved’ semi autonomous work groups in classic industrial settings. Workers have a say, yay! Part of the price being a company union. (This was fought against sternly at Nissan in Auckland, 10 week strike 1988) and other plants.

    The fatal flaw in all this was it was ‘our’ car while it was being produced but somehow transitioned to being the Tokyo shareholders car when it landed in a showroom and someone plunked the dollars down. Deregulation wiped the industry out over a two year period. And by most business standards the industry did not deserve to prevail with only 60-70,000 pa units. But a negotiated exit and future for the displaced people would have been good!

    Anyway back to Auckland Uni. It is not fair to put too much responsibility for this unpleasant and reactionary situation on one previous union or official. It has been building for years.

    My experience is some of the very qualities that make academia and non sausage grinding institutions desirable also makes them difficult to organise. Middle class academics are notorious for vacillating when the heat comes on, non conformism, individualism and eccentricity. Cute until you need organisation and solidarity. But it is fair to say that even the staunchest have been worn down by a decades long industrialisation of education. The situation you have described is as bad as it gets without the VC bringing in the rubber bullets really.

    Maybe the numbers and recent history are against the remaining members this time around. We still had freedom of speech in this country last time I looked, so if it is a last stand as you say members have to get out and unite all who can be united including students. Unis don’t operate without bums on seats, and remember Mr Hood eventually got run out of town in the UK.

    A ‘win’ for Mr McCutcheon in this situation will be a major loss to the whole community.

  5. TM;

    I agree with you that academicians are notoriously hard to organise and are now paying for that folly. One of the best pieces of advice I received when I arrived at Auckland Uni was to “join the union,” and that was told to me by two very senior professors with conservative outlooks. And, although I do not think that the union played its cards correctly in my particular dispute with the university, I also agree that it is a bit too strong to single out an individual union or person when the overall trend spans all economic sectors and types of work.

    But I had to make my point about how strategic mistakes played into the current situation, so drove it home hard.

    I bet McCutcheon found it hard to keep a straight face when he put his name to that ghost written op-ed.

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