Argos aims to circulate writing about topical matters of public and political import that is local, critical and accessible. We believe critical intellectual conversation should be heard here in Aotearoa-New Zealand, not simply published for credit in international fora for more limited and specialised audiences. Of particular interest to us is writing that grounds its concern with the public or political good of place-making in theory or philosophy.



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In search of an activist academic

Sandra Grey

An activist who is required to act in ways which are secretive, unaccountable, and not open to dialogical engagement with others is an activist who is displacing activism in favour of professional elitism.1

Most of us working and studying in tertiary institutions in New Zealand are familiar with the corridor conversations, the grumbling after meetings, and the remarks over a cup of tea about how managerialism is changing the nature of our institutions and our profession. Furthermore, there is now a significant body of academic work critiquing the current policy direction shaping higher education worldwide. The picture painted around the globe is of institutions and their staff being robbed of the spaces needed for research and teaching projects which are not countable, auditable, measurable or commercialisable, as their institutions are enveloped by what Richard Winter has called the ‘new higher education’ environment (NHE).2

What has not yet been well developed is an analysis of the opportunities for staff and students to resist the myriad of corporate, managerial and auditing techniques infusing daily life in universities—an analysis that will enable us to build a coherent strategic campaign against the NHE agenda. Pockets of resistance, often led by unions, are appearing at university and college campuses in the US, England, Scotland, France, Chile, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere. The question, however, is how to turn these pockets of resistance into a coherent global movement to ensure that universities in the twenty- first century are places where we can address the cultural, economic, environmental, scientific and social questions of our age. How do we move from academic analysis of the problems facing higher education to a concerted and ongoing political campaign which pushes back against those driving an NHE agenda dominated by economic imperatives, privatisation, marketisation and managerialism?

This paper analyses resistance to the NHE environment documented within a range of sources in order to identify some of the possibilities for moving from analysis to action. It mobilises concepts drawn from social movement and non-violent conflict research to understand activist techniques, and it is informed by ‘lived’ activism and scholarship in the form of document analysis. I served as the full-time National President of the New Zealand Tertiary Education Union in 2010 and 2011, and am a member of the successful Campaign for MMP.3 While some may assert that my ‘situatedness’ within the union means I am uncritical and unthinking, my role as an academic demands that my critique of the NHE environment is public, rigorous and open to dialogical engagement.

At this point I want to acknowledge the tensions that many of us face when discussing our role within a political project which challenges the power of those supportive of the NHE environment. Though many academics now happily challenge notions of ‘objectivity’ in research, when pushed to contribute their rhetorical, intellectual and research skills to a political project, they question whether this is a suitable space for academics to occupy. Certainly this challenge was something I encountered on joining the Campaign for MMP. Colleagues often indirectly questioned my actions, saying they would remain available for ‘objective’ commentary since the duty of political scientists is to ‘inform’ the public, not to fight for a particular alternative. I am of the view, however, that there are moments in time when good academic evidence supports a particular ‘political’ perspective, and that the roles of academic and activist are legitimately intertwined. An activist is someone engaged in publicly challenging the status quo, and this challenge can take place through acts as diverse as producing public reports to street activism.

If significant evidence shows that the NHE environment is causing harm to students and staff, to knowledge, to teaching and learning, and to democratic debate,4 should we not use all the resources at our disposal to fight back? We will be accused of having ‘vested interests’ for engaging in resistance to the NHE agenda, since public choice theorising infuses the reshaping of universities just as it does the broader project of neo-liberalisation and marketisation of all public entities. At its heart, public choice theory views society as a collection of individuals (rather than groups) who are assumed to act rationally in order to maximise benefit given their own preferences and desires.5 But, we must ask, who better to fight for quality public tertiary education than those who participate in it daily? To dampen this ‘vested interest’ criticism, we must also ensure that any work (including work to support political projects) is done with intellectual rigour and honesty.

Taking action against the NHE environment

For academics, the easiest form of ‘activism’ in which to engage is the ongoing diagnosis and critique of the NHE environment (since it sits squarely within the bounds of our existing world and expertise). While the problems created by managerialism, commercialisation, privatisation and corporatisation have begun to be thoroughly identified and debated, we must continue to articulate these problems publicly. As Jean-François Lyotard and Jacques Derrida have suggested, the very future of the university depends on how successfully it carries out the task of its own self-examination, and, along with this, the responsibility for the scrutiny of reason in all its historical forms.6 As this inaugural edition of Argos shows, many who work within the current NHE environment are prepared to engage in academic critique of the NHE agenda and its impact. We must articulate the problems of the NHE environment because there is power in the taken-for-granted nature of the project that is presently being pushed through.7 This taken-for-grantedness is central to the broader social, political and economic project dominating our world. As Erik Olin Wright has noted, ‘to most people capitalism now seems the natural order of things’.8

Part of challenging the taken-for-grantedness of the NHE agenda is to demonstrate that the world it creates is a created one. As they advance their reforms, the architects and acolytes of the corporatised, privatised, commercialised and managerial higher education system insist ‘there is no alternative’ (the mantra historically used to embed multiple forms of neo-liberalism). They also assert that those working within higher education institutions consent to their vision. Indeed, the New Zealand Ministry of Education states that the Tertiary Education Strategy approach, which links the ‘outputs’ of the tertiary education sector to ‘government goals’, is ‘accepted by the sector as the necessary way forward’.9 This TINA obscures the fact that the NHE environment is a created environment and that it is multi-vocal, fragmentary and incomplete, as is the overarching ideological and economic project of neo-liberalism itself. As Jamie Peck and Adam Tickell observe, neo-liberalism ‘should be understood as a process, not an end-state [. . .] it is also contradictory, it tends to provoke countertendencies, and it exists in historically and geographically contingent forms’.10 Understanding the NHE agenda as unfinished is important because, as Wendy Larner notes, it is only by theorising neo-liberalism as a multi-vocal, contradictory, and historically contingent phenomenon that we can make visible the contestations and struggles in which we are currently engaged.11

From analysis to ‘activism’

While we must expose the boundaries and contradictions of the NHE environment, academic analysis is not enough to change the system. As academic members of staff within tertiary education, we contribute to the system’s functioning through our daily actions. It is therefore incumbent on us to devise and implement a coherent programme of transformative action:

All of us working on these issues in research universities [. . .] have been waiting for someone else to take the lead in moving civic engagement work but it hasn’t happened. What we have now discovered is that we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.12

The question is: what will be involved in taking the lead? For me, the answer lies in seeking out knowledge, expertise and skills from those—such as social movement leaders, organic intellectuals, unions, non-violent conflict leaders, community and voluntary sector leaders—who are engaged in activism in civil society. We must find new modes of acting and working, since what we have been doing for the past two decades in New Zealand has not halted the implementation of commercial and managerial imperatives in our universities.

Social movement and non-violent conflict literature suggests that the ‘activist academic’ will have to participate in acts both of commission and omission.13 Staff and students already practice a range of acts of commission. We make submissions to our own institutions and parliamentary select committees; we write letters to those in management positions and to relevant political elites; we take part in institutional forums; we write columns for newspapers and other media; and we make deputations to senior management teams, governance bodies, government agencies and ministers. Instances of acts of commission are readily found in New Zealand. The Public Service Association, for example, made a submission on changes to student unions in 2010, noting concern that if the bill were to proceed into law, ‘it would devastate important services to students’.14 In 2012, a Victoria University of Wellington academic, Dolores Janeiwski, wrote to the Dominion Post newspaper, commenting that as protests about the removal of funding for primary and intermediate teachers mount, we should also pay attention to the impact of declining levels of funding in the tertiary sector.15 Another act of commission featured in the April 2012 report to the University of Canterbury Council from the Vice-Chancellor, Rod Carr, who noted the engagement of staff in debates at Canterbury during planned closures of three academic programmes (engagement which resulted in one of the planned closures being cancelled). These are but a few examples of the ‘insider tactics’ being used by staff concerned about the NHE environment and its impacts on teaching, learning and research.

Acts of commission are relatively ‘low cost’ (they are often require only a short-term engagement and do not threaten an individual activist’s life or liberty), but as the NHE environment has enveloped our institutions, there are suggestions that such acts have become less common. It is possible that many staff have found it easier either to exit, or to show loyalty, than to voice their concerns.16 Some staff may have chosen to exit (by changing professions or retiring) rather than sitting by and witnessing the on-going effects of power moving from the hands of staff collectively to the hands of those implementing arbitrary accountability and efficiency measures on behalf of the paymaster (the government). Research demonstrates that the introduction of managerialism in New Zealand from the 1990s resulted in increasing line-management within institutions and a ‘drift upwards’ in decision-making from faculty to professional administrators.17 The ‘professionals’ who hold expertise about teaching and learning have been pushed aside in favour of managers interested in balanced books and KPIs—though in the New Zealand education sector these are labelled EPIs (Educational Performance Indicators) to make them more palatable. As Paul Trowler has explained, within the present NHE environment, managers have control of the ‘product’ and academic staff are disempowered ‘in order to eliminate “producer capture”, to facilitate market responsiveness and to ensure that structures and processes are honed to maximise economy and efficiency’.18

While some of our colleagues have chosen to forego decision-making in our institutions or to exit universities altogether, others have become loyal to the ‘new’ way of doing things—perhaps because they have accepted the TINA mantra or because they benefit from the new rules of engagement. As noted by Chris Lorenz, support for New Public Management (NPM)19 in higher education ‘is based on the unholy alliance between the neoliberal political class and the NPM managers on side and aligned faculty and students on the other’.20 This speaks to another lesson we can take from those who practice and teach non-violent conflict resolution: the need to dismantle the pillars of support.2122

One pillar of support which it seems obvious to target in the new NHE environment is comprised of the many Vice-Chancellors, senior management teams and ‘academic’ managers who have ceased to be advocates for the broad-based mission of universities, and instead uncritically implement the managerial line. I agree with Stewart that:

The ascendancy of entrepreneurial university managements who emphasise a market-based rationality in which education becomes a consumer good, and who have a correspondingly anxious eye on consumer satisfaction and public relations as well as governments concerned with fiscal constraints, corporate ties and short term priorities, are paving the way for dangerous widespread institutional change.23

I would add that another factor helping to pave the way for dangerous widespread institutional change is that many of our senior management teams currently have their ‘anxious eye’ on meeting government objectives. Examining the public proclamations of Universities New Zealand (the New Zealand Vice Chancellors Committee) demonstrates this problematic tendency in action. Throughout the public documents of Universities New Zealand appear statements drawn from economic discourses which present universities as existing for commercialisation, business development and economic ‘growth’. The Universities New Zealand Briefing: Contributing Government Goals, for example, states that universities are ‘uniquely well placed to partner with government’ in pursuit of boosting economic growth, creating high value jobs, and growing export education.24 There is only one mention of a ‘social goal’ in the 53 press releases put out by Universities New Zealand between March 2008 and April 2013. This seems at odds with the stated mission of Universities New Zealand, which is to advance university education and research activity, to promote ‘the common interests of the universities nationally and internationally’, and to contribute ‘well-argued, unified responses to developments that may impact on university autonomy’.25

The fact that economic imperatives for education infuse Universities New Zealand publications is deeply problematic, no matter what is said behind closed doors to political elites. As noted by Cynthia Gibson, it is important to have administrators who ‘inculcate a civic ethos through the institution by giving voice to it in public forums, creating infrastructure to support it, and establishing policies that sustain it’.26

Part of the problem is that the NHE environment seems to encourage the creation of individual ‘master managers’ for our complex institutions, when in reality ‘good’ institutional leadership will be seen as a ‘portfolio of roles and tasks performed by a group of people in key institutional positions’.27 Distributed leadership—that is, leadership underpinned by collective and inclusive philosophy—may in fact be the required approach for complex institutions:

[D]istributed leadership [is] a new architecture for leadership in which activity bridges agency (the traits/ behaviours of individual leaders) and structure (the systemic properties and role structures) in concertive action.28

A second pillar of support to which we must turn our attention is the bureaucrats who at times acknowledge problems with the government’s narrow economic measurements which distort the rules of the game (Gilling’s Law states The way the game is scored shapes the way the game is played),29 but are not prepared (or able) to reject the failing system. We must find alternative administrative and policy approaches which will appeal to public servants. The political leaders of New Zealand comprise a third pillar of support for the NHE environment. The present National-led government is rapidly advancing the NHE agenda in ways that will fundamentally alter the nature of inquiry, teaching, learning and knowledge generation.30 Analysis of policy documentation, however, makes it clear that the major opposition party, Labour, was responsible for placing public tertiary education on the road to strong government steering when it established the Tertiary Education Advisory Commission in 2000.31 It was from this point onwards that the actions of our ‘autonomous’ tertiary institutions were moved to align closely with the goals of government. The challenge now is how to convince at least some political parties that this agenda is propelling universities in the wrong direction.


Successful nonviolent movements analyse the various segments of society (pillars) that keep a power structure intact (supported). Once identified, those pillars can be dissected into their component parts, identifying specific individuals or groups that make up that pillar. Nonviolent movements plan for ways to weaken and topple those pillars, eventually causing the power structure to collapse all together.


  • Identify the various pillars of support in this conflict that were keeping the power structure intact.
  • Discuss which pillars you think are strongest and which are weakest.
  • How did the movement attempt to undermine and topple the different pillars of support?

Moving to dismantle the pillars of support for the NHE agenda means working with those ‘elites’ who are uncomfortable with the current direction of higher education in New Zealand, and enlisting them to support alternatives. In order to aid this, we must build empowering processes, structures and institutions to which people can align themselves.32 If the existing institutional mechanisms of academic challenge and debate are proving less useful than they once were, then we must create new ones. Drawing on the work of Eric Olin Wright, I would suggest that the focus should be on interstitial and symbiotic transformations, and on developing new forms in niches and margins; such reforms will ‘simultaneously make life better within the existing economic system and expand potential for future advances in democratic power’.33 Social movement actors are long versed in this type of behaviour. Women’s movements internationally, for instance, have set up refuges and rape crisis centres to help immediate victims of patriarchal violence, and in so doing, have advanced the possibilities for removing patriarchal systems altogether. Related forms of activity have been evident in our own institutions. During the 1960s and 1970s, feminist scholars set up gender and women’s studies courses to challenge patriarchy, and black scholars established spaces for teaching ‘black studies’, challenging racism, disadvantage and colonisation within academia and more broadly.

There are already examples of alternative institutions being established at the margins, both in New Zealand and around the world. Conferences and seminars are debating, discussing and challenging the ‘taken- for-grantedness’ of the NHE environment. Academics are coalescing around research and advocacy groups such as URGE34 and the Campaign for Public University in the UK.35 Students are also creating spaces at the margins to debate and discuss the future of education. There are many examples of this, such as the deliberative forums and street politics of the Quebec student movement in 2012 and the WATU (We Are The University) campaigns recently formed in Auckland and Wellington. Staff in some places are setting up parallel institutions, like the Council for the Defence of British Universities36 and advocacy organisations such as Campus Compact.37

We must continue to set up institutions, structures and processes that will enable us to thrive as an academic community based on moral principles which support a broad based vision for tertiary education, and which can eventually replace those created under the NHE agenda. We must find and make spaces within our institutions where we can begin to dismantle the neo-liberal project which threatens the very nature of universities—spaces where we can turn anger or disillusionment into hope and action. As Wright notes, we need an ‘agent- centred notion of power’, which involves ‘people acting individually and collectively, using power to accomplish things’.38 I would argue, too, that in the case of a push back against the NHE agenda we must fight collectively, since there may be huge costs and penalties if individuals or individual institutions try to challenge or opt out of the auditing process.39

The acts of commission mentioned so far are insider tactics involving those already engaged in governing, managing and staffing higher education. If we are to turn the NHE environment around, it is likely we will need to borrow contentious political techniques from social movements. While university staff have tried a range of insider tactics to resist managerialism for 30 years, it seems that a major public movement will be needed to mount a successful challenge.40 Large numbers of people internationally know that higher education is a transformative experience. We need their moral support as their voices can help put moral pressure on the leaders of our nation to turn this ship in another direction. Engaging the public is likely to require actions which capture media attention and it may stretch to contentious performances such as demonstrations, teach-ins or public meetings.41 The aim must be to build ‘complex activity networks’.42 There have been examples of these already around the globe. At WITT (the Western Institute of Technology) and at Virginia U, staff and students have taken protest actions over the removal of popular institutional leaders.43 Student protests have been staged in Auckland and in the UK over budget cuts and rising student fees, and last year TEU members at polytechnics in New Zealand mounted a day of action against the government’s diverting of a large pocket of funding from public institutions to private training establishments. What is needed is to turn these moments of activism into ongoing challenges of the NHE system. Social movement activists and scholars know that successful campaigns are ones displaying ‘worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment’.44 We must support academic staff— many of whom have practiced acts of commission to try to push back against the NHE agenda being rolled out for decades—to find the time and energy not only to continue to resist the agenda, but to increase the intensity of that resistance.

Finally, we must examine whether acts of commission will be enough to force change in the policy, governance and management approaches being imposed on higher education. While research shows that it is much easier to build alliances and forge support when asking people to take fairly safe (and often institutional) actions, the time has come to think about the transformative power of acts of omission— perhaps better known as civil disobedience. In the case of the NHE environment, this would mean refusing to take part in processes which are not educationally and pedagogically sound. We have to do this as a strong collective, however, not as individuals who can be picked off one by one, so the first step is to stimulate widespread appreciation that change is both needed and possible.

If we believe that universities should not simply be destined to become an instrument of the economy, activism will be a necessary end point. More than two decades ago, Colin Lankshear called upon university staff to find energy for day-to-day resistance and challenge, for critiquing and debating university policy, and for establishing active networks with activist organisations and/or political elites.45 As this suggests, we must use the resources we do have—which are numerous—to oppose and resist further implementation of managerialism, commercialisation and privatisation in higher education. And we need to view this goal as being achievable. Since, as Campus Compact has noted, research universities possess significant academic and social influence, world-class faculties, outstanding students, state-of-the-art research facilities and considerable financial resources, they are well-positioned to drive institutional and field-wide change relatively quickly, and in ways that ensure commitment to civic engagement for centuries
to come.46