When the public thinks of casual employment, they might think of teenagers working after school at The Warehouse, or backpackers picking seasonal fruit as they bounce around the countryside. Our universities are actually no different, increasingly relying on casual and temporary employees to run classes and undertake research.

These positions can be best described as precarious; unstable, and often only months-long, offering no guarantee of ongoing employment. While academic roles were largely once permanent, it is now common for an “early-career academic” to work from one semester to the next being paid only for the hours they are offered (usually less than the actual hours worked).

Meanwhile, they often still produce published research, without compensation, in the hope it builds the CV necessary to obtain a full-time academic position. In a nutshell, attempting to grind out a career in academia was incredibly difficult even before the pandemic took hold.

Our open letter to the education minister states that casual and fixed-term roles at universities are overwhelmingly taken up by postgraduate students and early-career academics, and it is exactly these jobs which are most at risk. That might seem fair game to some, especially with the universal levels of suffering being felt across the economy. But simplistic arguments of income v outgoings obscure an important discussion about the implication of decisions being made today, and how they will impact the future makeup of tertiary education.

Academia comprises three things: research, teaching, and service to professions and the community. Due to the nature of university rankings, the ability of our institutions to continue providing teaching and service relies on us maintaining the production of high-quality research. Rightly or wrongly, a key driver in the measure of a university’s performance globally is the level at which its faculty produces research; this ranking determines the number of international students we attract to New Zealand.

Before Covid-19, international students coming to our shores were part of a multibillion-dollar industry, responsible for employing thousands of Kiwis. To compensate for slashing the casual workforce, our universities must divert full-time staff towards more teaching, pastoral care, and administrative tasks. This reduces their ability to apply for funding or undertake the research necessary to remain internationally competitive, and financially recover, once the pandemic is over. At least two universities are considering cutting staff pay to help confront the crisis posed by the multimillion-dollar loss of income from international students.

Another concern is that of student equity. For anyone to complete what is essentially an eight-year academic apprenticeship, or longer, it is almost certainly done through an element of aroha; a belief in the importance of education and progressing the next generation.

Multiple universities are making worrying noises about “shifting pedagogies”, coded language for keeping teaching online indefinitely, long after the threat of Covid-19 has passed. If we care about high-quality outcomes for students, this must simply not be allowed.

International research has repeatedly shown that shifting online is largely detrimental to learning outcomes. This is especially true for undergraduate students, many of whom are attempting to overcome social disadvantage through obtaining a higher education. If we stay online, we also risk impinging on the social responsibility we have as learning institutions to rebalance underlying social forces with consideration to Te Tiriti.

Furthermore, virtual universities bulldoze the hidden, yet crucial, socialisation process that happens on our campuses. It is at our university campuses that our next generation of leaders will meet, debate, collaborate and build the necessary social intelligence to make a meaningful contribution to our future society.

Thursday’s Budget provided no respite from the challenges faced by our universities, and in recent weeks Government ministers have ignored our request to save the most vulnerable of our staff. These are the very positions which our postgraduate students, our next generation of researchers, use to supplement their limited incomes. So as the axe swings across the industry in response to the collapsing international student enrolments, an academic career for which tens of thousands of dollars and a decade of study have been invested will become a near impossibility. 

The short-term solutions are remarkably simple: most universities need a cash injection, and should be pressed to ensure it is used appropriately (protecting vulnerable jobs, scaling up research and reducing the associated overheads).

The vice-chancellor of Victoria University of Wellington has forecast up to $397 million in losses from the pandemic across the sector in 2021. When contrasted with the billions we are already spending keeping the private sector afloat, this is not a significant amount; especially when it is also an investment in keeping people employed, and rebuilding a sector that is a major economic contributor.