University challenge

Dr James Kierstead
Insights Newsletter
2 June, 2023

Last week Victoria University of Wellington announced that it was looking to cut some 230 to 260 jobs as part of its plan to tackle a $30 million deficit. The news followed an announcement by the University of Otago that it would shed ‘several hundred’ positions in an effort to fill a $60 million dollar hole in its budget.

As an academic at Victoria, I’m dismayed at the news. Colleagues who have worked long hours fostering students and expanding our knowledge are now in scope for ‘review.’ The university, and in many cases the country, will lose valuable knowledge and skills as highly qualified scientists and scholars are given notice.

What exactly has led to this is already the subject of debate. Some factors (low unemployment, high Wellington rents) were surely beyond the control of university management. Others just as surely weren’t – including some questionable spending priorities, from fancy new buildings to expensive re-brandings.

A short piece like this obviously isn’t the place to settle that debate. But it might be the place to supply some data on one issue that isn’t getting that much attention.

This is the size of our universities’ administrative bureaucracies. In a forthcoming report for the Initiative (co-authored with Michael Johnston) we reveal that the majority of staff at New Zealand universities are non-academics.

Indeed, New Zealand universities have the highest percentage of non-academics as a proportion of their workforce (59%) of any of the countries we looked at. One other country (Australia) also employed more non-academics than academics, but by a smaller margin.

Academics earn higher salaries, on average, than administrators, so New Zealand universities spend less on non-academic pay than they do on academic salaries. Still, at roughly 40% of total salary expenditure, spending on non-academic staffing represents a significant outlay.

With more blue-collar employees like cleaners increasingly outsourced by universities, much of this is spent on managerial staff. A sizeable amount goes to senior administrators, including vice-chancellors, though the average vice-chancellor salary in New Zealand (some $556,000 in 2021) is substantially lower than in Australia and the US.

These senior administrators are now going to have to make some very tough decisions. And debate will no doubt continue on how these universities got into the dire situation they now find themselves in.

But it’s in everyone’s interest to have as accurate a picture as possible of what our universities spend their money on, including administration.

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