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Peer review of teaching. Do we know good teaching when we see it?

Jack Heinemann

When I was applying for my first academic position I was advised to ask my referees to not say that I’d be a good teacher, because that was “code” for saying I’d never be a top researcher. Whether or not many of us think the way this mentor did, there is some resemblance in this advice to how the research university works.

Your job application to a research university begins and ends with what you have done, and what you plan to do, in research. To get an interview you have to demonstrate your research worth. Even if the interview includes a separate event to showcase your teaching talents, more of your future colleagues will attend your research seminar.

Your future colleagues often think that they can extrapolate your teaching talents from how slick your lecture is. Indeed, most teaching components of an interview process are just mock lectures to hypothetical undergraduates. You have to be pretty diabolically bad for the job to be lost because of this perfomance.

Endemic in our culture is the quest for knowledge through research. That is not a bad thing! One of the characteristics of a research university that makes it different from primarily tertiary teaching institutions and from primarily research institutions is that research is a vehicle of teaching. Students ride this vehicle with mentors whose choice of research questions is (sometimes and hopefully mostly) influenced by how well they align with the capabilities of students to use them to learn to become independent researchers.

This begs the question then about what is evidence of effective teaching. The most common tool of measurement is the SET (student evaluation of teaching) survey. While this tool has value when applied well and for the right purpose—which sadly is almost never[1]—we have few alternatives. Most universities appear to be too insecure to lead the way away from this situation. However, the search is on for more effective measures of teaching effectiveness.

The advantage of survey tools is scalability. SET not only thrives on big numbers of respondents, but the cost per respondent declines as the number of students increases. Thus the cost to using the tool is predictable and minimal, regardless of whether the information is fit for purpose. Alternatives that involve careful measure of student achievement against carefully defined and possibly customised learning goals are not scalable and therefore potentially much more expensive.

Scalability is likely to guide a criterion for auditioning the next wave of SET companions. A tool I hear more often spoken about is peer review/observation of teaching. There is research that supports the efficacy of this tool, again when applied well and for the right purpose.

Notwithstanding that evidence, poor implementation of peer review of teaching could put us right back to where we are now. How will we know when or if peer review of teaching enriches the culture of learning? The tool is particularly attractive if you believe that we know good teaching when we see it. The challenge is to design a system of peer review that does something SET surveys do not do, to make visible previously invisible good teaching.

Challenges include:

  • decades of academics’ defining themselves as good or bad teachers based on SET surveys, a practice that has embedded within the culture the same perceptions of good and bad teaching that students have and which a mountain of evidence has shown can be contraindicative of benefit to students. How will our peers manage, even perceive, the effects of career long SET grooming?
  • assessing whether academics are better at guaging the learning happening in students by watching an academic guiding students through a learning activity. If the watcher has the same bias and ability to observe students as the instructor, and neither have access to objective and independent evaluation of changes in the minds of students, then peer review of teaching could be just correlative with SET.
  • distinguishing between high acheivement in a poor teaching activity from mediocre achievement in a good teaching activity. The difference is important because improvement in the latter has more potential to improve learning outcomes than does improvement in the former. We academics still primarily use the lecture format to both share our research and demonstrate our teaching ability. Why would we suddenly see that lectures are less effective than other approaches by watching our peers give lectures, especially when some of our colleagues could be much better at giving lectures than we are?

I prefer to identify good teaching through evidence of its effectiveness rather than reference to an internal standard of goodness. One source of evidence comes from comparing peer review evaluations with the outcomes of careful measure of student achievement against carefully defined and possibly customised learning goals. Oops, back to the unscalable and therefore unaffordable standard of measurement!

Measuring poorly can possibly cause more harm than not measuring at all especially when the measurement is strongly linked to promotion. The accountability-through-metrics generation will not like to read this. However, the evidence for this statement is now too large to ignore.[2] But I can throw a bone here and will. Measuring well but infrequently might cause more good than not measuring at all.

There are no easy answers to how to measure effective teaching. In part this is because teachers and learners can have different goals, and teachers can have different goals from one another and in different courses with different learners. There is a lot to measure. This might all sound depressing but to me it isn’t. Academics have a selfish interest in being effective teachers. We are dependent on a society that is made competent through our teaching. So good teaching really does matter.


[1] A particularly blunt statement from the research literature: “…our findings indicate that depending on their institutional focus, universities and colleges may need to give appropriate weight to SET ratings when evaluating their professors. Universities and colleges focused on student learning may need to give minimal or no weight to SET ratings. In contrast, universities and colleges focused on students’ perceptions or satisfaction rather than learning may want to evaluate their faculty’s teaching using primarily or exclusively SET ratings, emphasize to their faculty members the need to obtain as high SET ratings as possible (i.e., preferably the perfect ratings)…” Source: Uttl, B.; White, C.A.; Wong Gonzalez, D. Meta-analysis of faculty’s teaching effectiveness: student evaluation of teaching ratings and student learning are not related. Studies Ed Eval 2016;54:22-42.

[2] Braga, M.; Paccagnella, M.; Pellizzari, M. Evaluating students’ evaluations of professors. Econ Ed Rev 2014;41:71-88. http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2019/06/24/relying-often-biased-student-evaluations-assess-faculty-could-lead-lawsuits-opinion#.XRCVPqdRI5g.twitter

An academic caste system?

Jack Heinemann

Disclaimer: Research activities are important in some disciplines to provide society with views informed by non-commerical or governmental experts. In all disciplines research activites are essential to provide a learning space where research is part of the student experience. I am a researcher as well as teacher and chose to be at an institution that prioritises this mix of activity.

Working for a research university is a big part of my satisfaction. A long time ago I left a comfortable gig at a government research institute because I wanted to do research and use research to teach. I found that here.

Nevertheless, I can’t rely on it always being this way. Our sector is rife with incentives and pressures to become more specialised as either teachers or researchers (and either of those or critic and conscience of society). Despite really good work making success and investment in teaching rewarded and respected through the promotions and award systems, there is reason still for academic vigilance over the balance.

This article is about the potential for research for its own sake to dominate academic culture. Unchecked, the imbalance seeps across generations of academics until normal becomes the old extreme. I was inspired to write this by a picture I saw on Twitter that showed the “balance” of political parties purporting to be on the left and right, where the median is now what used to be called conservative.

My picture is an approximation. It is meant to illustrate not how I see the research/teaching balance at UC, but what it might become if left to drift. No particular balance is all bad. Neither is every balance best.

My thesis is that there are incentives internal and external to the University acting on academics which influence the balance. These incentives are differentially more attractive to the research hemispheres of our brains than the teaching ones are to our teaching hemispheres. The boring bits of each are also differentially more powerful disincentives.

My thesis is described in generalities for which there are notable exceptions. But I believe they represent the general rule.

Why research is so shiny Research success is strongly associated with financial success at both the institutional and individual levels. Success is measured by both outputs (e.g. through PBRF[1], external awards, individual association and institutional rankings) and inputs (e.g. grants received, greater personal autonomy to choose your own timetable of what work to do and when). An example of the power of choice is the flexibility of work scheduling that allows you to determine when to write that paper or grant application, attend key meetings or strike up collaborations or recruit postgraduates, or find the resources to travel to those meetings and visit collaborators.

Often, these measures are additive. In promotions and the PBRF, both outputs and inputs are used as evidence to support an individual’s case. In many cases, the number of postgraduates, which can be related to outputs, external funding and the infrastructure available through external funding, is also added to the profile. Often postgraduate supervison time is added to teaching time rather than research time. The benefits of student research are counted as research achievement and the cost of supervision is counted against the total teaching load. Because undergraduate teaching requires adherence to a much more rigid and externally impossed timetable, the effect is to shift even more self-determination away from teachers and to the researcher.

I’ve never personally seen an attempt to normalise these measures. For example, what happens if you divide the outputs by the fraction of time one has to do research as shown in the Table below? Which of these four academics is more “productive”? Which is likely to be percieved as more worthy of promotion based on research accomplishments?

Table. Hypothetical comparison of research active academics normalised by dedicated work times over an arbitrary time period.

Academic Research time Publications Productivity
1 1 15 15
2 0.8 12 15
3 0.4 7 17.5
4 0.2 4 20
5 0.4 2 5

Why teaching is shiny, but looks dull

Undergraduate teaching and the funding for postgraduate completions dwarf institutional income from research. However, excellence in teaching does not deliver the same degree of individual recognition or work flexibility. Indeed, the reward of the accomplished teacher may be more teaching and thus even less ability to organise work time for research pursuits. Course and teacher excellence are recognised, but the impacts of the loss of a great teacher or a great course are poorly measured.

Other courses and teachers replace them without also much impact on the perception of the University from outside or inside, at least over promotional time periods. In short, teaching that is “good enough” is hard to distinguish from teaching that is “great”. That is in part because teaching involves so many of us in activities that are hard to attribute to individuals, unlike the rigors of peer-reviewed outcomes such as publications and grant success.

Boring is an analog function

Academics like to complain about meetings. But meetings and other administrative demands are not the same for teaching and research. Teaching meetings are rarely exciting because the vast majority are teaching administration meetings. (An exception is “Teaching Month” hint hint.) Teaching moves at a slow pace. It takes years to see the legacy of your work unleashed through successful alumni.

Sure, reseach meetings can be snoozers too. Like the budget meetings. However, most research meeting time is talking research old and new in a dynamic schedule that sees outputs measured in months, not human generation times. The disincentives attached to teaching and research are also, therefore, not equal.

Frozen in time

Academics at UC have been fabulously robust. They have absorbed not just the impacts of natural disasters to look even shinier to the PBRF, but they manage the differentially powerful additive forces behind teaching and research too. Mainly they do so at a collective level which changes the proportion of real research time available to any person over different times of their career. This is significantly aided by the overheads socialised from the grants of some of our most successful researchers.

Despite our robustness, we can freeze individuals into career patterns that neither match their talents nor optimise the institution’s perceptions of its own success. Over and over I’ve seen ad hoc funding for those with failed second round Marsden grants only to never see those grants get funded. But the funding could result in other succcesses for the recipients who used it to build their research reputations and retained greater access to the research lifestyle. If you were not in those temporal anomalies, you might see it harder to escape the differential drag of teaching. These policies are overall successful, probably, but at the individual level it becomes when you were there, not who was there.

I’ve had colleagues who took on big administrative and teaching loads when I did not. This certainly helped my research career. And I’ve done, and continue, to do the same for others by sometimes taking on more administration and teaching. It is how we work best together. But we must manage these temporal events better to avoid creating a caste system that divides academics into research and all-the-others classes.

Frankly, I’ve also seen colleagues that benefited from an investment in their research autonomy only to leave for other institutions with the effect of freezing those they left behind in prolonged positions of elevated administration and teaching as they attempt to help establish new replacements. Would such superstars be so if their productivity were normalised to their research time?

The other side of the question is would those who’ve taken a slow down in research benefit from more research time? Sometimes the answer is no. It depends on the person and what they prioritise in their career at any given time. For example, releasing Academic 2 from more non-research activity will not result in much more research gain.

What I worry about is those for whom the answer is yes. Doubling Academic 4’s research time to match Academic 3’s is predicted to result in increased research outputs but the same is unlikely for Academic 5. Normalisation can help us to identify and target those who are time limited for research. Restructing to achieve a level of research activity can take time and might require help. Perhaps it is not as difficult as building a research activity level for the first time, such as early career academics must do, but the challenges are not so different. Only the aids are.

Solutions?

How we think about using our internal resources to achieve the optimal mix of activities has a profound affect on the individual. For example, the institution may by some arbitrary measure be just as “succesful” with a particular proportion of nearly exclusive researchers and nearly exclusive teachers. That model would certainly conflict with what I value about UC and how I percieve the role of public research universities. It is a kind of caste system.

If other academics at UC share my priorities, then we should be able to find a way to achieve an alternative to the model of academic specialistion into either researcher or teacher classes while at the same time honouring our colleagues who have chosen to seek their gratification from predominantly undergraduate teaching and university administration. It requires that we change how we see income and how to redistribute surplus.

As I mentioned above, small changes to how we measure academic productivity could create more flexibility in how we target the small amounts of money available to help researchers from time to time, at all stages of their careers. Beyond this, some of the proceeds of teaching, which are always socialised, could be virtually banked to buffer the troughs of researchers who have taken on a disproportionate load of non-research activity.

Obviously, I am neither smart enough nor have enough time in a blog to flesh out a real solution. But I hope I have established the veracity of my thesis and sparked a fire that makes the question of what balance we seek, and for whom, burn.

[1] Performance Based Research Fund

To read, or not to read

A few years ago I was the focus of a small but spirited rebellion in the 100 level course I teach in Biology. My sin was to have a question on a test that had an answer students only could  know entirely from the assigned reading. This came to the students as more than a surprise, it was unfair.

I had gone to the trouble of saying on the Learn pages, in the same place that I listed required readings, that not all content material was possible to cover in lectures and that reading to an appropriate level was a required skill of the course. But this defense rang hollow with some students.

My purpose in raising this historical event with my colleagues now is not to criticize the actions of the students. What the event taught me was that through our teaching culture we trained students to expect that all they needed to do was attend, and possibly understand, lectures. Some sections of our 100 level courses had no required reading and in most others, the requirement apparently was never enforced. Not only were these sections of our courses not encouraging students to read, they were de facto encouraging them to not read.

I am sure that this will come as a surprise to colleagues in many parts of the University. An essential skill students hone through university is the ability to read efficiently at their academic level. Achieving this proficiency at 100 level helps in their transition to 200 level. In their book Academically Adrift analyzing the most important aspects of a university experience to learning, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that assigned reading and writing activities were two of the most important correlates with measured increases in critical thinking.

Biology now has a policy that requires, at least for 100 level courses, that students should have an assessment based entirely on the assigned reading. This could be an unavoidable test or exam question.

But it isn’t enough just to assign some reading and then write a test question on it. Students should be given guidance and feedback on their progress. The reading and the scale of reading has to be appropriate for the course and the learner. Based on the nominal 150 hours for a 15 point course, students should be assigned selected readings that they can be reasonably expected to have time to read and understand.

“How much is that?”, so I wondered as I dismounted my high horse reaction to students’ umbrage at having to demonstrate competence in the material I assigned them to read. The answer was not easy to find nor does it remain a fully satisfying answer. What I settled on for now as a working estimate was this advice from Rice University: at an average density of 750 words per page in a textbook, the average student should be able to read 7 pages per hour.

In courses I coordinate, I subtracted the contact hours from 150 which left me with the time a student has to read and write or perform other course-required tasks. I did not include the time in an assessment such as a test or exam, but the time to complete a problem set and to study for the problem set was included.

I then evaluated what reading is ‘need to have’ and what is ‘nice to have’ relative to how I prioritise other activities and that can reasonably be expected of a student to complete in a 150 hour course. The completion of this exercise resulted in a table such as below.

Workflow analysis
15 point course = 150 hours

BIOL231/BCHM202

Activity Assessement value Number Estimated hours/activity Hours
Lectures 20 1 20
Laboratory 4 4.5 18
Tutorial 5 2 10
Final exam 30 1 2 2
Course test 15 1 2 2
Pre-req test/tut 15 1-2 2 2-4

1-2

Lab test 10 1 2 2
Lab flowsheets 5 4 1 4
pre-Lab problem sets 10 4 2 8
~number of pages
Assigned reading 318 (26.5 pages/week) NA 45
*Textbook page density is 750 words; engaged reading ~7 pages/hour
Undirected self-learning (other readings, laboratory readings, etc) 43-44
Values in blue are not considered part of the 150 hours because these are text/examination times.
*http://cte.rice.edu/blogarchive/2016/07/11/workload

 

One of my colleagues, on seeing this, exclaimed “That is far too much.” But is it? Undoubtedly it indicates that we have different priorities on what to emphasise in a course for our stated (or unstated) learning objectives. However, unless we attempt to inform our course structure with research-based evidence, we will be vulnerable to standards drift. A sign of this is when committees spend more time determining the line between C- and D grades than they do discussing the use of readings to support learning in courses.

Biology now uses such workflow analyses in all applications for new courses and encourages their use in all annual course review exercises. It is a work in progress.

Novel teaching practices within a course can be used to motivate students. However, they may be ineffective, or worse counterproductive, when used sporadically in a curriculum, as my anecdote illustrates. Only when adopted at a threshold regularity in courses do some practices become part of a constructive learning culture. We need more than to innovate in teaching; we need to innovate in our approach to curriculum-wide innovation and research-assured confidence in its effectiveness.

Jack Heinemann

Media representation and our relationship with LU

In December 2018 the University of Canterbury and Lincoln University (LU) presented a joint partnership proposal to the Minister of Education for consideration[1] having already signed a joint MOU in August to allow UC and LU to ‘explore partnership and merger options’ about which former VC Rod Carr commented “any new partnership or arrangement must bring additional benefits to both universities”.[2] Speculation by one media outlet reported that LU ‘could be governed’ by UC: “Lincoln University is likely to keep its name, degrees, assets and academic staff – but answer to University of Canterbury (UC) bosses under a yet-to-be-confirmed “partnership” proposal.”[3]

So which is it to be – ‘partnership’ or ‘merger’, or neither?

At the time that the UC/LU partnership proposal was being formulated Lincoln and AgResearch were also progressing a proposed $206 million joint facility “considered central to Lincoln’s future and financial sustainability” which was subsequently scrapped: “[Lincoln] university is heading back to the drawing board because AgResearch, its partner in the beleaguered project, will build its own facility”.[4]

Both UC and LU are awaiting advice from the Minister Chris Hipkins about the December 2018 partnership proposal, but the scrapping of the LU/AgResearch joint venture may change the entire partnership game plan and give UC a convenient ‘exit strategy’ from a proposal that may not now ‘bring additional benefits’ after all. With the LU/AgResearch joint facility now sunk the 200 million dollar questions for UC are:

  1. What are the ‘additional benefits’ to UC from any type of partnership arrangement?
  2. Will potential benefits outweigh both the costs and the risks?
  3. How will we, as a university community, answer these?

As a general staff member and student of UC I’m most interested in question 3. The partnership proposal was formulated by selected governance members and senior managers from both institutions and then presented to each university council for approval. It was considered in public excluded session by the UC council without being socialised within the wider university community, although it was discussed by Academic Board. If the minister accepts the proposal, or even indicates the likelihood of considering a subsequent version of the proposal, a sequence of processes could be set in motion that could potentially change the University of Canterbury in its entirety – constitutionally at governance level, senior management level, and operationally at every level of the university, administrative and academic.

Given that LU had been reported to be ‘underperforming’ and that “it would fail to survive another event like the global financial crisis of 2007-08” any kind of partnership arrangement should be viewed with a high degree of caution, but most worryingly according to a media report from 2017 former LU Chancellor Steve Smith was quoted: “if the Lincoln Hub is successful then the university will be successful”.[5] With the LU/AgResearch joint facility scrapped the potential for success of the

Lincoln Hub has to be re-assessed, and with that a re-assessment for UC about any possible future partnership with LU.

In March a new UC academic strategic planning process was initiated – E Tū, Kia ora.[6] Described as “an exciting opportunity for staff to help set the future academic direction of UC” and asking “What kind of university do we want to be when we turn 150 years in 2023?” If the UC/LU partnership proposal submitted in December is accepted by the minister, or approved for further development, then the ‘kind of university’ UC will be by 2023 may largely be defined by its relationship with LU.

Malcolm Scott

1 VC’s report to UC Council, Feb2019, 2.3 Partnership Proposal with Lincoln University; https://www.canterbury.ac.nz/media/documents/governance/VC-Report-to-Council-February-2019-.pdf

2 Lincoln and Canterbury universities sign MOU; https://www.canterbury.ac.nz/news/2018/lincoln-and-canterbury-universities-sign-mou-.html

3 26 Oct 2018, https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/108028341/lincoln-university-could-be-governed-by-canterbury-university-under-potential-partnership-plan

4 13 Feb 2019, https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/110536541/agresearch-to-build-own-research-facility-at-lincoln-uni-after-joint-facility-plans-scrapped

5 21 Nov 2017; https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/education/99051401/underperforming-lincoln-university-needs-teaching-overhaul–report

6 29 March 2019; https://blogs.canterbury.ac.nz/intercom/category/e-tu-kia-ora/

After 15/03/2019- The value of multicultural diversity and tolerance

Tēnā koutou/As-Salaam-Alaikum:

A wave of violence and hatred reached our shores on Friday March 15. We hope such extreme manifestation of ignorance never touches our home, Aotearoa, again. The lives of our immigrant brothers and sisters have been cruelly extinguished. As the immediate shock from the assault on our emotions eases, it is time to pause and try to understand what has happened. In her speech, our Prime Minister reflected; “[they] are not us”, their fear and hatred of the ‘other’ robs them of their humanity. It is not only geographers who understand that the world is a complex, multi-faceted place, where cultures interact across vast spaces, ideally enriching each other. We know that all communities, clusters of people wonderfully distinguished by language or cultural distinctness, are a unique aspect of the human legacy and its promise.

The anthropologist Wade Davis writes “Cultures do not exist in some absolute sense; each is but a model of reality, the consequence of one particular set of intellectual and spiritual choices made, however successfully, many generations before … [we] are unique expressions of the human imagination and heart, unique answers to a fundamental question: what does it mean to be human and alive? When asked this question, the cultures of the world respond in 7000 different voices, and these answers collectively comprise our human repertoire for dealing with all the challenges that will confront us as a species as we continue this never-ending journey.” We should choose to celebrate our differences, not be afraid of them. He goes on to say that the “legacy of humanity is a single continuum. Race is a fiction. We are all cut from the same genetic cloth, all descendants of a relatively small number of individuals who walked out of Africa some 60,000 years ago and then, on a journey that lasted 40,000 years, some 2,500 generations carried the human spirit to every corner of the habitable world.” We have now made our home in this corner of the world. Our corner of the world understands this message, this is why I live here.

Peyman Zawar-Reza

Collective responsibility to combat hate speech

The shocking massacre that took place in Christchurch on 15 March 2019 brought into horrible focus the lethal damage that can result from hateful and discriminatory ideology, and the sharing or publicising of this via the internet. The government and media were swift to condemn the gunman’s hate speech manifesto circulating on social media and there followed a unified response from many sectors of New Zealand society that “this is not who we are”.

However, hate speech is not limited only to the extreme right or those with racist views and since 15 March the public debate about what actually constitutes hate speech has cranked up to a new level. University of Waikato professor of law Alexander Gillespie, referring to the Bill of Rights, and Human Rights Acts made the point that “rather than the public battling back and forth over what is, or is not” in breach of these acts, the Government needs to “give much clearer guidance of what (and why) speech or words are legally acceptable/ or not”. 1 In 2016 the New Zealand Law Society published an informative article that reviewed several cases that had attracted widespread media attention titled: When is it hate speech? 2

But what about when media outlets, or media personalities, become the propagators of hate speech? One example played out in mid-March but was immediately overshadowed by the 15 March massacre. In the first weeks of March national media attention was on the Canterbury measles outbreak which attracted wide ranging media commentary. Duncan Garner on NewsHub’s AM Show gave a malicious rant that was later reported with the headline: Anti-vax murderers shouldn’t get access to the welfare system. 3 Characterising tens of thousands of New Zealand parents as ‘murderers’ and all parents that do not vaccinate as ‘Anti-vaxxer’, Garner included such hateful remarks directed toward parents as being “a selfish idiot”, “murderers”, “you might just die early”, and “truly delusional flakes”. If this is not considered a form of hate speech then I wonder, what is?

Media commentators frequently target non-specific groups such as parents, beneficiaries or the homeless with vitriolic attacks that often appear to go unchallenged. In the same week, on 15 March, NewsHub published another opinion article about the measles outbreak, this time by managing editor Mark Longley titled: Not vaccinating your kids is a form of child abuse.4 Longley’s article was more measured in tone than Garner’s rant, but accursed parents of child abuse and used retributive language such as “being stupid” and “you can punish them”. What kind of punishment did Longley have in mind?

In both instances Garner & Longley made intimidating accusations, and used discriminative language that denigrates and threatens. If either of them had directed this kind of language toward Muslims or Māori they would probably have lost their jobs by now.

As a university community we all have a part to play in combating the use and spread of hate speech wherever it occurs. Academic staff and students have the of academic freedom to enable them to publically criticise individuals or organisations that may be overtly, or covertly, discriminating. General staff can be mindful of this in the workplace, and at a personal level can call-out discrimination in their own social circle. Discrimination and denigration in the media can be challenged by submitting a complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Authority by any person.

We have an opportunity to be a more loving, caring, and inclusive society through accepting people’s cultural, religious or ideological differences that are not hateful or divisive. To be more caring and inclusive in the ways we communicate with each other. And to be less tolerant and more vocal about hateful or divisive attitudes or messages in the media that for some time now have gone unchallenged.

Malcolm Scott, University of Canterbury.

1 The Press, 27 March 2019, https://www.pressreader.com/new-zealand/the-press/20190327/281762745605019
2 NZ Law Society, 1 Dec 2016, https://www.lawsociety.org.nz/news-and-communications/latest-news/news/when-is-it-hate-speech
3 NewsHub, 13 March 2019, https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/new-zealand/2019/03/duncan-garner-anti-vax-murderers-shouldn-t-get-access-to-the-welfare-system.html
4 NewsHub, 15 March 2019, https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/lifestyle/2019/03/opinion-not-vaccinating-your-kids-is-a-form-of-child-abuse.html

2018 an eventful year for freedom of expression

The rights of the public to freedom of expression, and the privileges and responsibilities of academic freedom have been put to the test in 2018 by several high-profile events that attracted national media attention. First there was Auckland Mayor Phil Goff’s decision in July to ban Canadian far-right speakers Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux from council owned venues.1 Goff was criticised by Don Brash for infringing the public right to free speech in a legal motion by the Free Speech Coalition that aimed to “force Mr Goff to recognise he is in breach of the Bill of Rights and the Human Rights Act”.2 For a short while Don Brash became the ‘public face’ of the Free Speech Coalition, and then in an ironic twist of events found himself the subject of a ‘speaking ban’ when in August Massey Vice-Chancellor Jan Thomas ordered his visit to the Massey Manawatū campus be cancelled “over fears the event could lead to violence”.3 While it could appear the decision by Jan Thomas crossed a line between the public’s right to freedom of expression and the rights of university students and academics to academic freedom (since Brash had been invited by a student society) this is not necessarily the case since Massey had “no obligation to provide infrastructure for Brash to espouse his views”.4 However, public condemnation of Thomas’ decision was wide-ranging and included commentary by at least one senior Massey academic who viewed it as “unequivocally wrong”.5
Then in September e-mails obtained under the Official Information Act revealed that Thomas had “misled the public” by claiming her decision to ban Brash was for ‘security reasons’ which led to calls for her resignation.6 Thomas’ decision to ban Brash, and attempt to justify it for security reasons, set a worrying precedent firstly as a possible infringement on the rights of students and academics to academic freedom as defined by the Education Act (1989)7, and secondly to conflate subject matter that may be controversial with public safety inferring that any controversial topic of discussion ‘could lead to violence’.
In October an entirely different sequence of events unfolded concerning public freedom of expression, and the responsibilities of academics to the privilege of academic freedom. On 2 October RNZ (Radio New Zealand) reported on an Auckland billboard that had been up for one day and then removed by the billboard operator following a stream of complaints. The billboard featured a poster by a public advocacy group called WAVESnz8 depicting a man holding a young baby with the caption: If you knew the ingredients in a vaccine, would you RISK it? The poster was professionally produced and contained no offensive or defamatory images or information, yet attracted more than 140 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority in a single day. A spokesperson for the billboard operator Ad-Vantage Media said “[he] did not fully understand the controversy that a billboard questioning the efficacy of vaccines would cause”, and presumably ordered removal of the poster for commercial or reputational reasons as there was no legal compulsion to do so. In this case the decision to infringe upon the right to freedom of expression of WAVESnz was made by a commercial operator exercising ownership of the billboard under (or in breach of) whatever terms and conditions the advertising contract with WAVESnz allowed. Later that day a line was crossed concerning academic freedom when John Fraser of the University of Auckland was interviewed by RNZ. Dr Fraser claimed the billboard was “underhanded and deceitful” and “almost organised terrorism”.9 How something can be ‘almost’ terrorism is in itself a bit perplexing (either it is, or it is not), but what was really concerning was the use, or abuse, of academic freedom to characterise a group or organisation as ‘terrorist’. There is wide-ranging controversy concerning vaccine safety, it’s a controversial subject, but that doesn’t give academics the right to defend their expertise or opinion by attacking opponents with allegations of terrorism. This was not the first time Dr Fraser had characterised an activity or group as ‘terrorist’. In May 2017 RNZ reported on the film Vaxxed, an investigative documentary concerning the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) where officials allegedly ordered vaccine research evidence destroyed. The film was touring New Zealand, an activity Dr Fraser described as “the same as terrorism”.10 These comments characterised the film and its tour organisers as terrorists in an incredibly divisive and dehumanising way. When questioned about this University of Auckland Vice-Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon stated in an e-mail “[he] is a world-leading expert in infectious diseases and I would back his opinion on these matters any day of the week.”11
The issue here was not a question of Dr Fraser’s academic expertise but rather of his extreme use of divisive, and possibly defamatory, language toward an advocacy group which McCutcheon failed to address. The use of terrorism, where it is deliberately implied as a tool to supress freedom of speech has been condemned by the United Nations12 and should not be tolerated by the wider academic community.
Critic and Conscience Responsibility
The privilege of academic freedom comes with a responsibly to act respectfully towards the views and positions of others. The right to ‘state controversial or unpopular opinions’ (to which the public also have a right) does not imply that slander, defamation, or outright verbal abuse is ever acceptable. Thomas’ decision to ‘ban’ Don Brash might be seen as an infringement on the academic rights of students and staff at Massey, and McCutcheon’s unwillingness to admonish Dr Fraser’s extremist language is at the very least disappointing. Vice-Chancellor Thomas could be said to have failed in her duty under the Act “for the maintenance by institutions of the highest ethical standards” (s161, 3 (a), Education Act, 1989). However, in the situation concerning Dr Fraser it is up to individual academics to moderate themselves in their exercise of academic freedom.
In September this year the University of Canterbury reviewed and revised its policy on academic freedom, renaming it Critic & Conscience of Society and Academic Freedom Principles and Policy.13 The policy confirms and protects all of the rights of academic freedom under the Act, but goes much further by providing guidance to all members of the university engaged in scholarly activities (and as a guide to university management) and explicitly states it does not allow a member to “defame others, intimidate or discriminate against those who hold dissenting or non-conforming views or opinions, either within or beyond the University”. The policy only applies to members of the University of Canterbury, but in the cases outlined here, and for the wider academic communities of New Zealand, this policy sets a standard by which we as scholars, and the public at large, can all benefit.

Commentary by Malcolm Scott, University of Canterbury.

 

1 RNZ, 6 July 2018, https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/361220/far-right-pair-banned-from-speaking-at-auckland-council-venues-phil-goff
2 RNZ, 11 July 2018, https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/361535/auckland-council-to-be-taken-to-court-over-ban-on-right-wing-speakers
3 RNZ, 7 August 2018, https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/363534/don-brash-s-talk-to-massey-students-canned
4 Univoice, 21 September 2018, https://blogs.canterbury.ac.nz/univoice/2018/09/21/brash-is-not-a-victim-but-thinking-so-could-harm-academic-freedom/
5 RNZ, 11 August 2018, https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/on-the-inside/363686/the-decision-to-cancel-don-brash-s-speaking-event-is-unequivocally-wrong
6 RNZ, 20 September 2018, https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/366920/massey-uni-vice-chancellor-has-no-intention-of-resigning
7 s161, Education Act (1989), http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/1989/0080/latest/DLM183665.html
8 WAVESnz – Warnings About Vaccine Expectations, https://wavesnz.org.nz/
9 RNZ, 2 October 2018, https://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/checkpoint/audio/2018665071/immunologist-slams-anti-vaccine-billboard-as-almost-organised-terrorism
10 RNZ, 25 May 2017, https://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/checkpoint/audio/201845189/nz-immunologist-likens-anti-vaccination-movement-to-terrorism
11 E-mail from Stuart McCutcheon, 27 May 2017.
12 UN News, 2 January 2018, https://news.un.org/en/story/2018/01/640852-un-experts-decry-saudi-arabias-use-anti-terror-laws-against-peaceful-activists
13 https://www.canterbury.ac.nz/about/governance/ucpolicy/general/critic-&-conscience-of-society-academic-freedom-principles-and-policy/

2019 PBRF Review

The government has signalled that the PBRF will be reviewed commencing in mid 2019. The ToR have been published http://www.education.govt.nz/assets/Documents/Further-education/Policies-and-strategies/Performance-based-research-fund/Terms-of-Reference-for-the-2019-Review-of-the-Performance-Based-Research-Fund.pdfbut the membership of the review committee has yet to be finalised.

The foci of the 2019 review include:

• Revisiting the 4 primary objectives and 3 secondary objectives of the PBRF to determine if they are fit for purpose or require modification.
• To date the individual researcher has been the unit of assessment in terms of the “quality” parameter of the PBRF assessment framework. The review will investigate the merits of individual vs group based quality assessment. The underlying driver here is to boost collaboration between researchers and between researchers and the end-users of the research.
• Investigation of options to maximise the impact of PBRF funded research to stakeholders, including mechanisms to measure impact.
• Engaging in the PBRF process comes with both transactional and opportunity costs. There is a desire to minimise these PBRF related costs and options to achieve this outcome will be investigated. For example, the periodicity of assessment rounds could be lenghtened from the current 6 yearly cycle to a 10 or 12 yearly cycle.
• Investigation to ensure that the PBRF assessment framework is equitable across all types of research.
• Investigate if the PBRF assessment framework is delivering a highly-skilled, sustainable and diverse research capable workforce.

Professor Jonathan Boston, VUW, has narrated a video on the history of the PBRF, he was an advisor to the group that developed the PBRF framework, it can be viewed here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TasZd0QzKfI

Ray Kirk.

 

Want to contribute to the discussion? Do so below:

Kia Tōpū – Why?

One thing that is puzzling me about Kia Tōpū is – why? What is the strategic objective here? Why have a unifying theme project like this in the first place? And if we do have such a project then why choose food? Is the objective to be more attractive to students? Or to raise our position in the various rankings? Or to secure more external funding? Or to compete head-to-head with Lincoln and take their space?

The original business case document that was circulated has a short section titled “Strategic Case” where it says:

This section of the business case confirms the strategic context for the investment proposal and makes a compelling case for change. It takes previous options considered and develops the preferred approaches to the opportunities while considering defences to competitive threats.
New Zealand is currently exporting $30 billion in agri-food exports, however by the time they reach offshore markets, they have a retail value of $250 billion. Not only is New Zealand losing this gap in value, opportunities are also being lost to respond to and benefit from significant global food market disruption created by new ways of growing food without the need for land or animals, and distribution approaches which remove the need for intermediaries.
By 2050, the world’s population is forecast to hit 10 billion, and global agricultural production will have to grow by 70% by this time if current production and consumption patterns remain unchanged. In reality, to meet the global demand for food, increasing agricultural yields will not be enough. This population growth means that the percentage of arable land per person is decreasing; currently 3% of the Earth’s surface is arable land (of this 11% used for biofuels, 18% for food and 71% for animal feed) and 7% is for pasture. While these pressures exist, about a third of food produced is lost or wasted.
At the same time, climate change will have a drastic impact on food production. For example, it is predicted that by 2050, 40% of the world’s population will suffer from water shortages.
New Zealand has a role to play in feeding the world, and also needs to address its own issues in environmental and production challenges.
The application of new and existing technologies or business models in innovative ways to the three parts of the food supply chain – the production, processing and distribution of food including drink – can provide both opportunities and threats to New Zealand’s largest export sector.

None of this explains why UC is adopting this project. Are we simply being good global citizens?

The VC’s report to Council in September 2018 states:

Kia Tōpū is a new UC research and teaching initiative that aims to contribute to the global challenge of future food and food security. Over the next five years, UC will invest in research and teaching to help develop Kia Tōpū’s vision for the sustainable production, efficient processing and secure distribution of healthy foods across the themes of Food Equity, Food Intelligence and Food Innovation. These themes underpin the four projects that largely underpin Kia Tōpū’s programme of work: programme development, EFTS growth, the development of a research institute, and an online repository. Research and programme development continued on the realisation of Kia Tōpū delivery, with two representatives from each college on each of the main oversight groups – one related to establishing the research institute and one to develop taught programmes. This multi-year, multi-million-dollar investment in interdisciplinary research and teaching will require UC to develop and apply collaboration skills to leverage the contribution UC can make to the work of other institutions including other universities, CRIs and private sector partners.

However, this is also lacking in strategic objective reasoning.

No-one is questioning that food is an important issue (although the world has more kilojoules for more people than ever before). However, water is an important issue and so is climate change and so is energy security. So why food? What comparative advantage did we have in that area?

And no-one is questioning that universities should use their scarce resources for the greatest benefit. Is this where UC can actually make the biggest difference? There is an opportunity cost to this project – has anyone established what we will NOT now be doing? (i.e. what is the opportunity cost). The business case document is strong on benefits and very weak on costs. All projects have benefits – the question is are those benefits worth the costs.

The project may very well be worthwhile but I don’t know as I can’t see what the strategic objective is  and I can’t see any evidence of weighing costs and benefits. I think knowing those two things would be helpful.

Stephen Hickson.

Have a response?  Want to comment?  Comments are open below.