Debate sits down with the Vice Chancellor to discuss AUT’s future
by Nic George (he/him)
After two years of disrupted learning and a botched redundancy proposal, Debate sat down with Damon Salesa to examine some of the challenges the university faces and its plans to overcome them. Our post-pandemic learning environment has presented a new set of challenges for students and the university, so Salesa and AUT have begun working on a new strategy moving forward.
“We face a world where students and the university feel the pressures of the cost-of-living increases. We face uncertainties about everything from AI to our geopolitical situation.” Salesa says.
AUTSA recently conducted a student survey that found 70 per cent of students are losing study time because they are taking on extra shifts at work just to keep up with the rising cost of living.
Some staff and students have also raised concerns about the integration of online and in-person study, and the impact this is having on the university experience.
Some papers have moved completely online, with students relying on video content to learn the course material.
Salesa says they are working to find a middle ground between the two learning styles to maximise the learning outcomes for students.
“We've heard quite clearly from students that they value some kinds of flexibility, but they also deeply value the social human relationships you can only get in person. And so, what we need to do is make sure we deliver both.”
Late last year, the university announced a significant redundancy proposal that would have seen 270 staff lose their jobs; but following a ruling from the Employment Relations Authority, they were required to put the plan on hold until July this year.
Salesa says the university’s financial recovery plan has been more effective than originally anticipated, so there is no longer a need to introduce large-scale redundancy plans in the foreseeable future.
“Voluntary redundancies among academic staff and a reduction in professional staff at the end of last year and early in 2023 resulted in significant savings. This, along with modest increases in international student numbers means that no large-scale organisational changes with job losses are needed.”
Many tertiary institutions across the country rolled out large redundancy proposals to cut costs and reprioritise certain courses, which has drawn criticism regarding the corporate nature of these universities.
Critics argue that universities provide a public good and that the focus on appealing to the private industry is coming at the cost of courses that may not be seen as “profitable”.
Salesa says he understands the concerns, but also recognises that the funding model for universities in Aotearoa means they need to prioritise the areas students are most interested in.
“AUT has a history of committing to public good programs. I think that's in our DNA. Yet at the same time, we have to face the realities of student demand and the nature of our revenue.”
The government announced $128 million in extra funding for tertiary institutions in June. However, this will only come into effect next year, and may be scrapped if there is a change in parties this October. AUT is set to receive $12.6 million as part of this funding boost, but Salesa says this is not enough.
“It's not functionally an increase. It's more like us being less worse off.”
A significant part of AUT’s strategy building is the Imagine AUT initiative, which seeks to engage students, staff, and the broader public, to hear their vision for the university.
Salesa says bringing these perspectives together will helpplan out the changes they need to make over the next seven years.
“The strategy is really about listening intensively and recognising that, as a community, we're smarter when
“There are many different voices around where we should go and what we should do. And that sort of dissonance is quite productive.”
If you would like to find out how you can get involved with Imagine AUT and have your say, you can email imagineAUT@aut.ac.nz