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Questioning Quigs – Issue 1

Many people know the title of the Vice-Chancellor, beyond the title what does your position entail?


I’m, in effect, The Chief Executive of The University. And I’m a lifetime academic, I’ve spent my whole adult life in The University system. And my responsibilities go across every aspects of financial and administration of The University. But also I’m the chief academic officer of The University so I have responsibility ultimately for everything that happens with teaching and learning in all of our research programmes. 


It’s imaginable due to COVID, with no international students entering and no assistance from the government that The University fell below its budget- how does it feel having the responsibility of letting staff go to achieve a sustainable outcome?


Well it never feels good. But, I think two have things softened that. One is that, you know, so far we have managed with only voluntary redundancies or enhanced retirements and there was quite a lot of scope to encourage people, you know, who were of a certain age to take retirement and free-up some of our salary budget for this year as well as some people taking voluntary redundancy. And I think the programme we ran in the second half of last year was very successful. As best I can tell now we are in a position that’s not necessarily sustainable because we will make another operating loss for this year but certainly survivable without further significant staffing cuts. So if the borders were to stay closed for all of next year as well as this year, that would present another level of challenge. But at the moment we’re expecting that the government would start to open the borders to international students next year and then we will be in reasonable shape. 


I’ll say one other thing though that, cause I just said this in the video for staff, a good illustration of the fact that over time, with international students, we’ve allowed our staffing structures and our cost structures to adjust to the income that they provide and I think this has been a pretty dramatic realisation for everybody, you know, that in the absences of international students the cost structure and the staffing levels are not sustainable. So we need to think pretty hard about how we manage that in the future and how we will manage any additional revenue when we get international students start to flow again. But for now it’s been difficult but I think we’re in reasonable shape and I think the staff around The University have been fantastic in their support for the things that we’ve done knowing that we’ve had to do it. We, for all our departures of staff, in the second half of last year, it’s great that all of that was conducted in a sort of dignified and as positive as it could be way so that you don’t see any negativity in the media or anything about it which is ideally what we want.  


What does the staff shortage mean for students’ access, learning, and experience? 


Well, you know, what I said last year is it will mean in some cases that there are fewer options, papers, and degrees. Because a lot of our additional staffing was built around just being able to offer more papers with any particular degree programme. So we will have to limit choice in some respects. But, for the most part students shouldn’t notice the difference aside from the fact that perhaps see a few more papers on the books but not offered. And certainly at the moment, you know, our commitment is to keep offering every degree and keep offering the papers students need to major in their degree. So, it shouldn’t affect students in a significant way in respect of their ability to complete.


Amid the chaos of last year, we forget of the new innovative facility, The Pa. What drove you to decide to go through with this plan?


Well, two things. One, it is needed as a resource for The University. In the sense that during A and B trimester for a lot of the time the library, Te Manawa, is quite full. And we don’t have many places where students can just come up and congregate and talk about their work in a sort of way. So some of that happens in Te Manawa, some of that happens in The Student Union building, some of it happens in different parts of the university. But, in the future there is a greater need for that so it’s a facility that we need. You know, for a whole variety of reasons to focus student life. 


The second thing about it is we’ve realised that a lot of the old, tired buildings of The University are at the point where we may not be able to cost effectively renovate them and that we may have to build new buildings rather than renovate the old ones. And one of the problems is that in a lot of buildings from the early 1970s, which is a reasonable number of the older buildings here have asbestos and various other complications which makes them hugely expensive to try renovate. So The Pa preserves the shell of A Block but otherwise it’s a completely new facility and an opportunity for us to see how all of that goes. 


Perhaps one other thing I’ll just say, I guess it’s a third reason why the facility is good: it completes the design of the campus, in the sense that all of the- if you remember from last year before they started the construction, all of those strange zigzags and things other than the path beside Te Manawa towards the Hillcrest Road level so that wasn’t very good in terms of accessibility in a whole lot of ways. The new connected building for the pa which runs down the front of S block, it will provide additional elevator access from the I, J, K level up to Hillcrest road and means students can walk across into The Pa undercover as well as not having to walk the hill if they don’t want to. So, it’s a significant improvement and accessibility on the campus and also just in the way it defines that main path down through the center of the campus which I think is going to be very helpful. 


And is it economically viable to invest in such a facility given The Universities budget shortages, assuming that more will come due to the unpredictable nature of COVID?


Well, it’s more challenging to invest in new things in the current environment. But, there is a balance with us, we’re building something that will be there for students for the next 60 years. And so one of the reasons we decided to borrow to fund quite a lot of that construction is that it means that the interest cost and capital repayment for the facility will be spread over in a several cohorts of students into the future rather than just the current students. 


But also, at the moment interest rates are so low that The University can borrow at extremely favourable rates, significantly lower than the postage mortgage rates that you see for people to buy houses. So that also means that if we have cash sort of around that doesn’t do us any good because it doesn’t earn any interests at the moment. So if you can afford to take the risk of doing things like The Pa at the moment, it’s a great time to do it because the interest cost of borrowing is so low. All these things you try to strike a balance. I mean, there are plenty of other things I’d like to see us doing but I don’t think we should push into those at the moment. But, just because of the strategic importance of The Pa. And, you know, other things I just talked about- I think it’s pretty low risk to move forward with that at the moment. 


Can we expect to have a bakery on campus when The Pa opens?


*Quigly pauses to chuckle* (In that moment I knew I had cracked the wall between interviewing the Vice Chancellor and becoming long life acquaintances- Editor). You’d be surprised, this is what Vice Chancellors do. Now you know we’re in charge of bakeries. So, I know that students want something like that and since there’s going to be a food court in The Pa. And we’ll still have some retail space by the village green so there should be a bakery in there of course, it depends on us finding someone to pick up the franchise to do it. But we will have more retail space and we have heard that students do want this sort of retail food outlet that students do want this sort of retail food outlet that sells carbohydrates at the cheapest possible costs. 


To give background to our new-entry students, last year you were boycotted for The University’s alleged institutional racism, how did it feel dealing with 6500 signatures to have you sacked? 


Well, it wasn’t much fun. It was an interesting less-non arranged in front. So one is as the employer of the staff when people are unhappy it’s often the case I can’t say very much publicly because I am bound by constraints on holding privately whatever I am discussing with a staff member as a private conversation. So, I don’t really, in many of these cases, have the ability to defend myself except through the mechanism which was to issue an independent investigation of it. And I think what was really important those events last year was that a lot of senior Maori people particularly from Manaakitanga and Waikato Tainui made a decision not to say anything and that was because they knew me and The University and I think expected that there was a bit more to it that met the eye. So, it’s interesting also, of those 6500 people who signed the petition, many of those were from overseas. And none of them really had any idea what the actual issues were. 


And of course that the joys of my job as a public figure as you have to expect a bit of that from time to time so as I say it’s not that much fun but unfortunately it’s part of the job that you have to ride through those things, you have to be ready to listen to what people have got to say when they’ve got something constructive or that you can use to say and otherwise you sort of do knew what we did. But The University counsel and all of my senior colleagues around the university have been incredibly supportive, so it could’ve been a lot worse but I never felt particularly alone. In all of that even though the conversation was so focused on me, it wasn’t really just about me. 


It’s something I hope not to repeat in a hurry. Sometimes the things I have to do are difficult, but I can’t be deterred just by the fact that there’s going to be a fuss about it. Because if you’re sure it’s the right thing to do, then you just have to do it. And that was one case where there was a plan to spend money The University could afford and it was the wrong thing I could be doing so I don’t feel in retrospect that I had any other alternative but to act in the way that I did. Or be it at the time I didn’t anticipate quite what a public fuss it would create. 


I want to tie that into another experience last year, did you feel that after lockdown the backlash for keeping lectures online was unfair or deep-down deserving?


It’s another one of those things where it’s easy to be wise in hindsight, we didn’t have to go and do another lockdown, but we could have. And if we had, the disruption associated with half-way through the semester- sending everybody back into 100% online would have been huge as it was the first in A trimester. And that disruption includes having to take a week off so the staff can get organised and all that sort of thing. So I feel we probably made the right decision even though there was a certain amount of negativity about it. 


It was the decision that was best in terms of managing our risk if we should have to go into another lockdown. But it also had the advantage that it shifted the perception of many staff and probably students as well- often these things that they can do this. If you’d asked the academic staff of The University two years ago whether they could just move into 100% online delivery quite a lot of them would have said no; it’s impossible in my discipline. And actually in the end, people did some remarkable things, like some of the scientists constructed virtual field trips and just things like that using video from locations and stuff. And all of a sudden you wonder why is it we put all these people in the van and or a bus and cart them around the country by comparison. 


So it raised some interesting questions about the methodology about what we really can do to use technology and that’s positive because it means what happend last year will have a sort of permanent imprint on the way of teaching and learning in the future. So we’ve got something positive out of that. 


I wanted to have your opinions on the government’s fees-free first years (because I most certainly liked it) and what effects does that have on your processes at University?


It introduces a little bit more of the administrative challenges for us but they’re manageable. It was difficult the first year they were introduced because they were introduced quickly. Everybody had to scramble to make it to work. 


Beyond that, it’s government policy, it is what it is. I think that the thing that some people in The University system pointed out, is that what it does- it relieves the debt burden for students. Whereas I think some people would’ve hoped the government would give the money to universities, directly, rather than funding students. But of course there is a limit to how much students can afford to pay for coming to university, and the higher the tuition fees get raised the more equity issues get raised. And I think we’re all aware that loans, even though they’re interest free, don’t deal with everything. For some families that don’t have any material asset base, to decide that their children are going to borrow 30 thousand dollars to get through university is a huge deal. Whereas, of course for many sort of middle-income families it’s not but there plenty for people whom it is. So, I understand. It’s fascinating though that it really doesn’t seem to have changed participation rates in tertiary education that much- there’s a REALLY interesting aspect of the puzzle. But, nonetheless it’s government policy, I understand why the government did that. I think it’s also interesting they’ve decided not to continue to do year two and three which was originally their plan. 


I’d like to know too!


Well I think probably they have been given pause because it hasn’t changed participation rates. And to spend that much money the government doesn’t need to be able to show that something changed as a result other than just that students had lower levels of debt, if not, maybe the money is just better spent on other things on other things that will improve access and participation in the education system. So, I imagine that that’s what they’re thinking about. 


What are your opinions on cancel culture given your extensive boycotting experiences? 


Cancel Culture… mmmmm. Well, I have to confess I barely knew what cancel culture was until I was on the receiving end. What I find interesting about it is that, but what I find interesting about it is that, in all the support it generates on social media, it is an attempt to galvanize political support based on emotion rather than rational facts analysis. And of course, this is something that happens with people generally- there’s lots of examples of that historically. It’s just that historically people don’t have social media. So now it is possible for a lot more support to be obtained through quickly using social media, but it’s the same idea basically- people aspire to have power in a particular context, try to get that not by factual analysis of the situation but by generating emotional support for the power they want to exercise. What strikes me as the sort of things that should be anathema to the context of The University. 


Also, knowing the term cancel culture makes you all the more like Gen Z…  how does that make you feel?


I don’t feel like your generation in any other sense, I can assure you that. So I won’t let that go over my head. 


What song got you through your boycotting experience (apart from the support from his wife and beloved dog)?


That’s a generational thing as well. When I was your age there might’ve been but in this case, no. Sorry that is not a thing. (Quigly not having a single song being stuck in his head is obscene! With that I will assume the song that got him through cancel culture and boycotting: Ra Ra Rasputin- Editor)


How much does your position directly affect the lives of our own- the students? 


Well in a surprising number of ways I’d say it does. So for some things at a high level some things I can do that will affect the lives of a very large number of students whether it’s The Pa, whether it’s the decision we make around student learning support. A sort of whole variety of things like that. The health service next to them…  the mental health nurses, prevention programme things. All of that would hopefully make a difference. Also, though there are opportunities to interact with students at a more local level sometimes at some particular things. One of the key things about my job is that it would be easy to operate at the level where you sort of float above the problems that people have. But personally I much prefer to know what problems people are having because even if I can’t fix them, if I know about them it might actually change the way I do something at some point which would be in a positive way. So occasionally people will bring things to me. With particular issues and I quite like that because sometimes I can see a way to solve that problem or I can see a way for someone else to solve that problem. And then there’s even appeals on student complaints and things which may in some cases filter up to me and again I get insights into what happens and the things that I can do. 


So the job is mostly high level, but personally I don’t mind at all being dragged into the detail when somebody gots something they really want. 


Between COVID backlash, institutional racism, and death-threats, how was your Christmas holiday?


I needed my Christmas holiday. And often I don’t actually. I love my job and I’ve made a very explicit choice to stay in the university system my whole adult life but this year I needed a holiday, but that was ok. We are fortunate to have a nice house, a pool, a dog that needs lots of exercise. So we get a lot of use out of the river park, days park and the path up to the Pukete.


Don’t give too much away about your location. 


Ah the joys of New Zealand, if anybody wanted to find out where I live they could easily do so. Quite a lot of the university staff have been to my house for a number of functions so it’s not secret. But of course, Ella is a surprisingly good watch dog. She barks a lot when people come to the gate. So she (the dog) may look like she’s all sweetness but she barks a lot when people come around. 


What was your favourite beverage on Christmas Day? (Your favourite beverage may give the most away about your personality). 


I don’t actually drink that much. And in my family even my children don’t drink that much. So we had turkey and I had some chardanae. But only one of my children actually joined me. 


Well obviously water is the alternative then.


One of the things about my son who doesn’t drink (in that moment he turned around to the back of his closet, I desperately etched the microphone closer so I don’t lose the audio. At that point he brings out a gigantic can of Monster Energy- Editor) I tried this drink and thought oh it’s quite good! I drank a bit of that now. 


And to finish off, what can we expect to happen at Waikato University this year as a product of your decisions, and will we be happy?


Well, ah I hope so. And products of my decisions? At the moment there is nothing I think there is big on the agenda we have to deal with. What we’re going to do this year is develop a new University strategy. A sort of institutional strategy that normally you’d refresh every five years. Sometimes a bit more frequently. The current one expires- it’s its fifth year this year. So we need to go through a process about high level strategy again and there are some quite big things we need to talk about on that front. But- from the point of view of the students obviously it’s my aim to make this the best place it can be for students so there’s nothing very radical we’ve got planned. We just have to get through all this year and hopefully by winter next year we’ll have The Pa available for people which will be a big change and I think in student life because we want to encourage people to study and stick around campus even in winter.