The recent opinion piece (“Library closures act of barbarism”, April 19) by 10 current and former arts professors of the University of Auckland contains significant errors of fact which must be corrected.

First, let me reassure readers that the University of Auckland is in excellent heart and the idea of a “malaise” there is nonsense. Our domestic student numbers remain strong despite (or because of) our having the highest entry standards in the country. International student numbers continue to grow and we attract 7000 international students each year from more than 120 countries. We fund and produce more research publications, creative works and patents than ever. We have low staff turnover rates and increasingly positive responses to staff surveys. And we enjoy huge support from our alumni and donors – more than any other organisation in the country.

Nor do we burn books, though we are proposing to consolidate some small libraries with the central library just a couple of hundred metres away.

That will allow us to reduce costs of operation – a better option than reducing numbers of academic staff, which would be another alternative given our limited funding. It will also allow us to increase the hours that material is available, from the typical 49-58 hours a week in specialist libraries to 96 hours a week in the main library.

Materials that are used less often – some 700,000 items at present – are stored off campus, available at 24 hours’ notice. As about 32,000 physical items (including 13,000 books) are added to the collection each year, the on-demand storage allows us to retain more books without committing scarce funds to expanding expensive in-library space.

The professors’ experience in leading international libraries will have made them accustomed to such arrangements. They may not realise, however, that the space freed up is used to meet students’ demand for study space. I am unclear how any of this makes us “barbarians”.

It’s true that we closed the Maidment/Musgrove Theatres and built the Newmarket Campus. But as the professors know perfectly well, the Maidment/Musgrove complex was an earthquake risk. We take the safety of our community very seriously – I’m surprised they would have us do otherwise. And in any event, we have committed to the development of a new Performing Arts Centre. The Newmarket Campus was not an impost on the Arts – it was funded through the sale of the Tamaki Campus.

It’s also true that we have had to reduce staff numbers in some faculties, while at the same time increasing them in others. Over the last eight years, our total number of academic staff has increased by about 240 full-time equivalents. Where we have had to reduce numbers, it has been solely because demand from students has declined. In the Faculty of Arts, we slowed the rate of loss of staffing positions by providing an extra $1 million of budget in each of the last two years, a fact the professors conveniently ignore.

It’s not clear to me how they think that misrepresenting the situation at their own university will enhance enrolments.

Finally, the professors misdiagnose the problem. The fact that we run a billion-dollar public institution in a business-like manner is not the issue here. Had we failed to do that we would now be at the brink of insolvency, as a number of public tertiary institutions are. The real problem is that for over 20 years, successive governments have focused on reducing the cost of education to students rather than investing in the quality of the institutions. The free year of tertiary education, which they applaud so readily but which as best we can judge has brought no new students into the university, simply continues that trend.

Professor Stuart McCutcheon is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Auckland.

Source: NZ Herald

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