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UC leadership needed for the climate emergency

By Malcolm Scott

Since April this year sustained collective action by Extinction Rebellion (XR) and other environmental groups that disrupted London, and coinciding with the School Climate Strikes, convinced the UK parliament to pass an historic motion to declare a climate emergency (Locke, 2019)[1].  In May Greenpeace called on the New Zealand Government to declare a ‘climate and environmental emergency’ following the precedent set by the UK,[2] and soon after followed resolutions by Environment Canterbury,[3] and the Christchurch City Council[4] and as Locke (2019) notes, more than 900 other local governments in 18 countries, as well as 7000 colleges and universities have already declared a climate emergency.

In his article UC Must Recognize The Ecological Crisis, Locke makes three main recommendations including following Victoria University of Wellington (VUW) in joining the Climate Leaders Coalition. On 4 September 2019 UC did follow VUW in taking an historic step toward recognising the global ecological crisis and climate emergency, in an announcement by the VC Professor Cheryl de la Rey that “UC recognises the School Strike 4 Climate NZ on Friday 27 September.”[5] This followed a RNZ interview on 3 September with VUW Vice Chancellor Grant Guilford.[6] According to RNZ Victoria University had joined Lincoln University in endorsing the strike by school students planned for the 27 September, and that they were  encouraging their staff and students to take part, and neither will need to take annual leave nor explain their absence if they do so. On behalf of VUW Guilford said:

“We feel it’s very important, it’d be irresponsible not to support them, we do a lot of work on climate change and are very clear that the consequences of life as we know it from climate change are grave and irreversibly set in motion unless we rapidly de-carbonise the world energy supply so it is the adults that are being irresponsible risk takers not these young leaders.”

Guilford’s comments, and commitment to allow staff and students to take part in ‘civic action’ set a precedent and a challenge for every New Zealand University VC, that was immediately adopted for UC by de la Rey: “We understand that many of our staff and students will want to stand with the School Strike 4 Climate NZ in calling for a more sustainable future and we have made allowances for them to take leave to attend the event.

However, Guilford also introduced another challenge, the relevance of academic curricula in the face of the global ecological crisis and climate emergency:

“The idea that you can just go to school and learn your arithmetic and your English and life’s going to be fine in the next twenty, thirty, forty years is an abject nonsense. These kids are taking charge of their future, we need to support them in doing so.”

This leads back to another of Locke’s (2019) recommendations for UC:

“Our graduate attributes represent a charter for the skills, knowledge, and capabilities we think our students need as 21st century citizens, surely then it would be negligent not to include the ecological crisis.”

Some questions that arise:

  1. How does a UC degree prepare our students for the future of climate change?
  2. How will UC incorporate environmental values and climate change into its graduate profile?

And finally,

  • What does a ‘climate emergency’ actually mean?

All of these questions (and others) are crucial for UC and the rest of the university sector to be engaged with. The point of declaring an emergency is to create a situation of urgency, which according to the IPCC[7] appears to be the case.

But there are also risks and uncertainties for democracy when a government declares an emergency that could allow enactment of emergency powers. This could this lead to executive orders that by-pass due democratic or legislative process. For example, could dangerous environmentally destructive technologies such as aerosol geoengineering[8] be deployed for climate change mitigation under emergency powers despite widespread controversy[9] and no universally accepted governance structure or suitable environmental legislation? Since 2010 the NZ Government has repeatedly denied the existence of aerosol geoengineering operations in New Zealand,[10] yet thousands of New Zealanders have called on the government to cease geoengineering operations allegedly underway (change.org).[11] In an interview with Marc Morano, former US Republican insider, Morano discusses an alleged UN agenda for removal of civil rights and global depopulation under the auspices of a global climate emergency.[12] Discursive interpretations from sociology, politics, and law, as well as the environmental sciences, about what a climate ‘emergency’ actually means are imperative.

There is no doubt, for me at least, that the planet and humanity are facing an environmental and ecological catastrophe[13] and that the public are calling for urgency from government to respond to this. Universities as public institutions mandated to the role of critic and conscience have an obligation to demonstrate leadership through research and teaching, environmental sustainability, and ensuring our graduates are informed and prepared for their future in which “life will not continue on this planet as we know it” (Guilford, Vice-Chancellor VUW).

So far UC leadership has shown some initiative by assessing its investment portfolio and adopting a policy of ‘less than 1%’ of investments in fossil fuel industries, and in October 2018 stated its aim was to “cut its carbon footprint by 45% with a low carbon energy strategy that will significantly reduce its coal-based heating provision”.[14] However, UC focus on international growth means emissions from international air travel by increasing numbers of students and staff travelling internationally or more frequently means that the carbon footprint from air travel is likely to far exceed any reductions achieved by the low-carbon energy strategy. Further, aircraft damage to atmospheric ozone[15] cannot be mitigated by carbon offsetting. Clearly a more comprehensive approach and policies concerning emissions reduction by UC will be needed, including reducing staff air travel, and offsetting travel by international students recruited by UC since we cannot expect their country of origin to carry their carbon offsetting for their attendance at UC. Perhaps international student fees could include a carbon offset component.

Environmental advocacy groups, municipal councils, and the general public are calling climate change an emergency. UC’s response requires leadership and engagement with students, staff, and our local and national stakeholders. What will be our collective response?


[1] Locke, P. (2019). Univoice. https://blogs.canterbury.ac.nz/univoice/2019/09/03/uc-must-recognize-the-ecological-crisis/

[2] 2 May 2019, https://www.greenpeace.org/new-zealand/press-release/nz-govt-must-follow-uk-and-declare-climate-emergency/

[3] 16 May 2019, https://www.stuff.co.nz/environment/climate-news/112758855/environment-canterbury-declares-a-regionwide-climate-emergency

[4] 23 May 2019, https://www.stuff.co.nz/environment/112932350/christchurch-city-council-declares-climate-emergency-to-protect-future-generations

[5] 4 September 2019, https://www.canterbury.ac.nz/news/2019/uc-recognises-the-school-strike-4-climate-nz.html

[6] 3 September 2019, https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/morningreport/audio/2018711572/universities-show-solidarity-for-striking-school-students

[7] https://www.ipcc.ch/2018/10/08/summary-for-policymakers-of-ipcc-special-report-on-global-warming-of-1-5c-approved-by-governments/

[8] 23 November 2018, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/geoengineering-treatment-stratospheric-aerosol-injection-climate-change-study-today-2018-11-23/

[9] Robock, A., (2008). 20 reasons why geoengineering may be a bad idea. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 64:2, 14-18.

[10] Ministry for the Environment correspondence: 27 May 2010, (Letter; ENV4443); 3 Feb 2011 (OIA191); 10 March 2011 (ENV6401); 14 April (ENV6749); 5 Dec 2011 (ENV7876, 7936, 8004); Minister, A. Adams, 4 July 2014 (ENV12110); 29 Feb 2016 (OIA 16-D-00142); Minister, N. Smith, 11 April 2016 (OIA 16-O-00321); Minister, D. Parker, 16 May 2018 (COR1477).

[11] 15 Oct 2018, https://www.change.org/p/zane-o-neill-ban-geo-engineering-weather-modification-in-new-zealand/u/23422478?cs_tk=AYWoQ85ITtZhIYOByFsARvwaATghEpKNexUz1XKBLw%3D%3D&utm_campaign=5dcc4a1c2bd64aba991ee71ceb00d265&utm_medium=email&utm_source=petition_update&utm_term=cs

[12] 12 August 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bpxAIYrtGLw&feature=share&fbclid=IwAR3fM-qPIHJD4C_c31OKEV__M9bOl6dooDrseUyEqcyRmxKo0zIOqLBopc0

[13] 6 May 2019, https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2019/05/nature-decline-unprecedented-report/

[14] 25 October 2018, https://www.canterbury.ac.nz/news/2018/uc-aims-to-cut-carbon-footprint-by-45.html

[15] New Scientist 1994, https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg14219232-100/

UC Must Recognize The Ecological Crisis

By Piers Locke

In October 2018, after a meeting held here in Christchurch in March, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report that gave us 12 years to implement radical change to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees[1]. After more than three decades of obstruction, denial, and inaction on climate change[2], this seemed like the urgent wake-up call our governments needed to hear. Shortly afterwards Extinction Rebellion (XR) emerged, an activist movement advocating non-violent civil disobedience to force governments to declare a climate emergency[3].

In April this year it culminated in sustained collective action that disrupted London, capturing the UK news cycle. Coinciding with the School Climate Strikes[4], a well-timed David Attenborough documentary on climate change on the BBC[5], and Greta Thunberg’s invitation to speak to a coterie of top politicians, the UK parliament then passed an historic motion to declare a climate emergency[6]. Ireland has followed suit[7], as have France and Canada[8]. Here, as the NZ government prepares its Zero Carbon Bill[9], Nelson City Council[10], Environment Canterbury (Ecan)[11], Christchurch[12], Auckland[13], Wellington[14], and Dunedin[15] city councils (and more[16]) have all declared a climate emergency, as have more than 900 other local governments in 18 countries![17] Furthermore, 7000 colleges and universities have already declared a climate emergency, with a commitment to carbon neutrality by 2030, mobilizing resources for action-oriented climate change research and skills creation, and increased delivery of environmental and sustainability education.[18]

These are important symbolic first steps, but of course, they must serve as the basis for coordinated action.[19] Furthermore, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has recently released a highly significant report that alerts us to the biodiversity extinction crisis and the threat to the ecosystems upon which organized human life depends[20]. In short, the environmental consequences of human activity and our industrial economy now pose an existential threat to civilization as we know it. This requires nothing less than a transformation of our values, our thinking, and our political and economic systems, as well as a reorientation of our technological endeavour, and much greater ecological appreciation of the impacts of human activity. Business-as-usual is no longer tenable and transformative change is imperative, as contributing authors to the IPCC and IPBES reports acknowledge.

Daunting as this may be, it follows then that we must also rethink the University to meet the extraordinary challenges of the 21st century- a time when the global scale of ecologically transformative human activity has proven sufficient to propose a new geological epoch- The Anthropocene. The University is making positive strides with a new Sustainability Plan and an advisory group for its implementation (of which I am a member), but greater integration of research and teaching with operational planning remains a gap to be filled (although another working group has been formed to address this). What should we do then to make ourselves fit for such purposes?

Here are three modest suggestions:

– The University of Canterbury is already a CEMARS-certified[21] institution measuring and reducing its carbon footprint. Perhaps then it could consider following Victoria University to join the Climate Leaders Coalition, participating in the Climate X collective to steer New Zealand toward a zero carbon economy?[22] It would make sense to formally plug-in to this initiative as an institution since the University is home to manifold expertise on diverse aspects of the climate crisis (including a member of the IPCC).

– If our graduate attributes represent a charter for the skills, knowledge, and capabilities we think our students need as 21st century citizens, surely then it would be negligent not to include the ecological crisis. While some of us may have experienced the implementation of the graduate attributes as little more than a matter of bureaucratic compliance, that does not mean they cannot become meaningful for staff and students as they are increasingly integrated into teaching practice (although I note that most of my students still seem unaware of them). Proposing an additional, distinct attribute may not be the most desirable approach to take since the predicament we face today is at least partly a result of failing to integrate environmental consideration with thought and action in the domains of society, politics, economics, and technology, i.e. treating the environment separately is a key part of the problem.

Bearing in mind the institutional effort the attributes have required, perhaps then it would make greater sense to modify the existing attribute of global awareness than to implement a whole new one. My suggestion then is that it be adjusted to consider planetary as well as global awareness (since the former suggests the biophysical materiality of the life systems upon which we depend, while the latter suggests the social dynamics of an increasingly inter-connected world).

– Finally, I think we should make a concerted, institutional effort both to encourage more inter-disciplinary collaboration and to reconfigure our curricula to make them better suited to the challenges of these extraordinary times. Our disciplines can sometimes seem like territories to be defended, especially in the age of audit, which has pitted them against each other in competition for student enrolments. This has sometimes deterred us from exploiting complementarities and working across disciplines (although corrective initiatives are now afoot in this regard).  Disciplines are neither eternal verities nor discrete islands of knowledge, but rather configurations of knowledge and practice subject to change and hybridization. This is acutely pertinent to the global ecological crisis as a multi-faceted phenomenon, which exceeds the reach of any one discipline and the all-too familiar boundaries between the social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences that have been integral to the structure of the modern university[23]. To address the crisis, disciplinary knowledges either need to be put into  more rigorous conversation with each other or integrated into hybrid forms, both of which are occurring with renewed urgency[24].

The education our students need then, is one that prepares them for a world of tumultuous change that may be more logistically, sociologically, and psychologically challenging than any generation has previously had to confront. Indeed, climate grief and ecological anxiety do not just represent novel topics of enquiry, but something at least some of our students are experiencing now, reminding us that a disinterested understanding of global ecological processes and the role of human activity is insufficient. Surely then, we have a moral responsibility to ensure we equip our students with the skills, knowledge, and dispositions with which to exercise meaningful agency in averting social and ecological catastrophe.


[1] For a summary of the IPCC report see: https://www.ipcc.ch/2018/10/08/summary-for-policymakers-of-ipcc-special-report-on-global-warming-of-1-5c-approved-by-governments/

For commentary from Professor Bronwyn Hayward, a member of the IPCC here at UC, see: https://www.canterbury.ac.nz/news/2018/new-ipcc-report-marks-end-of-magical-thinking-about-climate-change—uc-expert.html

[2] For the story of the political struggle among scientists, activists, politicians, and corporate lobbying here in New Zealand, watch the documentary film Hot Air: Climate Change Politics in New Zealand. http://www.hotairfilm.co.nz/

[3] Beginning in London, UK it has also spawned chapters active here in Aotearoa, New Zealand. https://rebellion.earth/

[4] https://www.schoolstrike4climate.com/

[5] https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-47988337

[6] https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-48126677

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/may/10/irish-parliament-declares-climate-emergency

[8] https://www.climatechangenews.com/2019/06/24/four-countries-declared-climate-emergencies-give-billions-fossil-fuels/

[9] https://www.mfe.govt.nz/have-your-say-zero-carbon

[10] https://www.stuff.co.nz/environment/climate-news/112774585/nelson-declares-climate-emergency  

[11] https://www.ecan.govt.nz/get-involved/news-and-events/2019/environment-canterbury-declares-climate-emergency/

[12] https://ccc.govt.nz/news-and-events/newsline/show/3614

[13] https://ourauckland.aucklandcouncil.govt.nz/articles/news/2019/06/auckland-council-declares-climate-emergency/

[14] https://wellington.govt.nz/your-council/news/2019/06/climate-emergency

[15] https://www.odt.co.nz/news/dunedin/dcc-votes-declare-climate-emergency

[16] https://www.stuff.co.nz/environment/climate-news/113747732/councils-declare-climate-emergencies-but-will-it-result-in-any-real-change

[17] https://climateemergencydeclaration.org/climate-emergency-declarations-cover-15-million-citizens/

[18] https://www.ecowatch.com/climate-emergency-colleges-universities-2639161884.html?rebelltitem=2#rebelltitem2

[19] https://thespinoff.co.nz/society/22-07-2019/so-youve-declared-a-climate-emergency-now-what/?

[20] https://www.ipbes.net/news/ipbes-global-assessment-summary-policymakers-pdf

[21] https://www.enviro-mark.com/what-we-offer/carbon-management?gclid=CjwKCAjw5pPnBRBJEiwAULZKvoTGxYFTNNm7WrVnGeC0DTUVaV7Br1ea5ckwrW_5oiUbe3r2kcZSyxoCb9kQAvD_BwE

[22] https://www.climateleaderscoalition.org.nz/

[23] For instance, here’s a recent article arguing why science needs the humanities to address climate change: http://theconversation.com/why-science-needs-the-humanities-to-solve-climate-change-113832

[24] In my own Anthropology teaching on the global ecological crisis for example, I combine earth system science with sociocultural anthropology, human geography, and environmental history, introducing students to discursive fields where academics talk across and beyond disciplinary boundaries.

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/