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Insights 28: 4 August 2023
Research Report: Non-Academic Staffing in New Zealand Universities
Podcast: Meta stops serving news in Canada. Will NZ be next?
Policy Point: Pharmac should not be criticised for being selective and slow about what it funds

A Parallel Universe
Dr James Kierstead | Research Fellow |
A few months ago, I stepped into a parallel universe. I was following up a routine administrative task and soon found myself outside a building I’d never seen before, after 10 years working at Victoria University. When I went inside there was an enormous open office filled with administrators.
When I first arrived at Vic, we had an administrator in the Classics Programme. She knew the academics, she knew the students, and she knew what I was supposed to be doing. About five years later, we were told our administrator would be gone, replaced by a whole pool of administrators at the school level.
Universities have changed over the past couple decades. In the US and elsewhere, there’s a lively debate about what role universities’ administrative bureaucracies have played in these changes.
My colleague Michael Johnston and I wanted to look into non-academic staffing at New Zealand universities. The result is our report Blessing or Bloat? Non-Academic Staffing at New Zealand Universities in Comparative Perspective, which came out this week.
What we found surprised us. The majority of staff at our universities are not lecturers and professors, but non-academic staff. At some universities, non-academics form quite a clear majority; at Vic last year, non-academics made up 61% of total staff, according to the Academic Quality Agency.
New Zealand universities have the highest ratio of non-academics (1.4 to 1) of any of the countries we looked at in our report (Australia, the UK, the US, and Canada), and of any university system we know of apart from Iceland’s.
Our universities have also joined in an international trend to employ ever more managerial staff, and ever fewer hands-on and technical staff. Executive staff have roughly doubled as a proportion of total non-academic staffing, while technicians have roughly halved.
We have two main concerns. The first is that universities are now no longer staffed mainly by academics. That makes them very different places to the cultural institutions they once were.
The second has to do with the bottom line. Universities do need administrators, but as budget crunches bite at universities across New Zealand, can our universities really afford to go on propping up some of the largest administrative bureaucracies anywhere in the world?
It’s a question that vice-chancellors across the country will have to think very hard about as they make the difficult decisions demanded by the ongoing budgetary crisis.

In praise of a kiwi iconoclast
Dr Michael Johnston | Senior Fellow |
It can be hard for a country to admit that one of its idols has feet of clay. As it happens, one of New Zealand’s educational idols not only had feet of clay, but her name was Clay.
In the 1970s, Marie Clay developed the Reading Recovery programme, an intervention to assist primary-aged children struggling to learn to read. The programme involves daily one-on-one lessons for up to 20 weeks. It is based on the now discredited, ‘whole language’ philosophy, which holds that learning to read comes naturally, like oral language.
Early on, Reading Recovery seemed to work. In fact, it became New Zealand’s most famous educational export. The programme was adopted throughout the English-speaking world. Marie Clay became Dame Marie Clay, OBE.
But in 2002, an international group of reading experts, including New Zealand’s Professor James Chapman, wrote an open letter criticising Reading Recovery.
The experts pointed out that the programme does little for the poorest readers. They noted that it was not adapting in response to new research findings.  Most troublingly, they observed that the students who made initial gains in Reading Recovery tended to slip back when the intervention was over.
One by one, the countries that had adopted Reading Recovery dropped it. The only country that still runs the intervention is New Zealand. Despite ever-mounting evidence against its effectiveness, the Ministry of Education continues to fund the programme.
The cult of Reading Recovery has, arguably, been the greatest roadblock to New Zealand’s adoption of structured literacy. Structured literacy recognises that reading does not come naturally. It uses the correspondence between spelling and sound to help kids read words they have never seen in print before. Its effectiveness is supported by a wealth of scientific evidence.
The trouble is that the theoretical underpinning of structured literacy is antithetical to that of Reading Recovery. And questioning Reading Recovery in New Zealand is tantamount to heresy. Until recently, anyway.
James Chapman has led the fight to ditch Reading Recovery and adopt structured literacy for decades. Finally, late in his career, it looks as if victory is in the air. Ministry funding is now available to train teachers in structured literacy.
Professor Chapman may not be an idol like Dame Marie. In fact, when it comes to Reading Recovery, he’s an iconoclast. But he has science on his side, and a steely determination to do what’s best for our kids.

Robertson’s truth in context
Dr Oliver Hartwich | Executive Director |
In Tuesday’s parliamentary questions, Minister of Finance Grant Robertson engaged in some impressive word play.
He had previously dismissed exempting fresh food and vegetables from GST. Now, he had to reconcile his past statements with Labour’s leaked plans to implement just such an exemption.
When confronted about this by National’s finance spokesperson Nicola Willis, Robertson reached deep into the toolbox of rhetorical trickery. That is where he found the concept of ‘context’.
It was ‘context’ that allowed Robertson to stand by all his previous statements, but only “in the context that they were made and undertaken”. 
Ah, ‘context’! There is nothing quite like it to reshape an argument to fit the moment.
In this sense, or ‘context’, Robertson situated himself in a long line of historical figures.
Think of Galileo Galilei, standing before the stern faces of the Inquisition centuries ago.
Galileo had claimed that the Earth moves around the sun, not the other way around. But when context demanded it, he recanted his theory. Just as Robertson has, Galileo (temporarily) put his own survival ahead of the truth.
Robertson was also questioned about the implications of GST removal on supermarkets’ profits. Once again, he reiterated his previous comments “in the context in which they were made”.
He was right, of course. After all, Captain Edward Smith also claimed that his Titanic was unsinkable. And she was – but only in contexts that did not include any icebergs.
Robertson’s ‘context’ was also evocative of Boris Johnson’s Brexit vote strategy. Johnson wrote two opposing columns, one in favour of Brexit and one against it. The ‘context’ would dictate which view he would endorse. Coincidentally, he selected the one most likely to make him Prime Minister.
Robertson should not be accused of inconsistency. Instead, he artfully demonstrated the subtleties of variable truth-telling. And, as we have seen, he is in good company.
After Robertson’s mind-blowing performance in Parliament, we are left anticipating his next move. We can only speculate what it might be.
After 14 October, will he explain that he has changed his mind about wanting to be Prime Minister, but only in the context of leading a Labour, Greens and Te Pāti Māori coalition? Or will he say that in the context of Labour being in opposition, he would rather like not to be in Parliament any longer?
Only time will provide the true ‘context’ for Robertson’s impending decisions. After all, in politics, isn’t everything just a matter of ‘context’?

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