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Riley Chance questions whether AUT and Massey University really face financial challenges

Public Policy / opinion
Riley Chance questions whether AUT and Massey University really face financial challenges
Image: AUT.

By Riley Chance*

Gaslighting - a form of psychological abuse in which a person or group causes someone to question their own sanity, memories, or perception of reality.


The book I’m currently writing, Justice, centres around domestic violence (DV). More specifically, how the justice system, through its cynical financial rules, denies women (91% applying for a Protection Order are women[1]) access to justice. When a friend sent through an email about ‘massive job’ cuts at AUT, I did some research and uncovered similarities with a common DV problem – gaslighting.

In a DV context, gaslighting is employed to confuse and isolate. Abusers constantly shift the truth, change their words so their victims question their own sanity, memories, or perception of reality[2]. In the university context, it appeared the narrative from senior managers concerning the financial position of their university was being used to create a crisis and justify the massive job cuts.

Comments from AUT management in the story stood out. Even though AUT’s financial position was sound (according to management) they had “indicated to staff for several months that there are financial challenges”[3]. I decided to do what journalist Ace Marks, my lead character, would do, I went digging.

Financial statements are mind-numbingly boring, accountants might love them, nobody else does. They are however, if you know where to look, easily deciphered. At the end of 2021, AUT had assets of $1.2B and in the last year had made a profit of $12M. In fact, over the previous years they have been raking in profits. In 2020 they made $11M, 2019 - $17M, 2018 - $17M, 2017 - $13M, 2016 - $18M . . . I lost interest after seeing healthy profits over the past decade (TEC financial performance[4]

What the figures demonstrated for AUT was a decade of profits and a strong balance sheet. It is no wonder Chris Hipkins made the comment during the recent university strikes – the universities were in “good financial shape”[5]. AUT’s messaging to its staff is an example of gaslighting.

I contacted people at Massey University, asking the innocent question, “Are you guys in financial difficulty?”

I hit a nerve.

I’ve paraphrased one reply – I’ve just endured a diatribe of financial vomit. No mention of education. No mention of students unless it’s a headcount in some nonsensical ratio.”

Massey, I discovered, was in a full-blown financial crisis – apparently. The VC had written about a $47M deficit – ouch! They too were running a proposal for change (disingenuous management speak for cost saving by axing staff) in response to the crisis.

Was Hipkins wrong? I went digging.

In Massey University’s 2019 annual report, before Covid struck, Chancellor Michael Ahie gleefully stated, “Our balance sheet continued to be very strong, which is reassuring given our challenging operating environment. We now have total assets valued at $1.5 billion against a total liability of only $0.3 billion”[6].

I dug through their equally tedious financial reports. At the end of 2021, Massey had assets of $1.5B and had made a profit of $25M. In 2020 they made $6M, 2019 - $9M, 2018 - $15M, 2017 - $38M, 2016 - $5M . . . I’d seen this pattern before. (TEC financial performance[7])   

It looks like Hipkins is right!

I don’t have space to cover the following related points, I note them to provide context. Universities are state owned. Education, like health, is a public good. The government, as a sovereign currency issuer, can invest as much as it wants in education, assuming it believes more education is better than less education. I certainly haven’t read many arguments that the solution to the wave of mis- and disinformation swamping New Zealand is less education.

Back to gaslighting. When people hear a message on repeat – in the universities case the ‘coming financial crisis’ or after the 2020 US election Trump said ad nauseum ‘rigged election’ (and he still is) – the message morphs into an unquestioned truth. More and more university staff talk about the financial crisis. Is this the right time to seek a pay rise? The message is fed back and reinforced. People who felt they knew the situation start doubting themselves. “We must be in a financial crisis because everyone says we are.”

In a DV context, victims of gaslighting are blameless. In the universities case, it is more difficult to comprehend how the messaging is not exposed for what it is – wrong. On the other hand, university staff aren’t all accountants (thank goodness) and should be able to rely on the information repeated from those with management titles.

The simple way to determine the current state of university finances is to ask those at the top of the pyramid, their respective chancellors. In Massey University's case, it is the previously quoted Michael Ahie. In AUT’s case Rob Campbell. Both appear respected in terms of business and governance accumen. Both have reputations worth protecting.

So, Michael/Rob, given Chris Hipkins statement – universities are in “good financial shape”[8] – please answer these two questions.

  1. How would you describe the current state of your university’s finances?
  2. Will your university experience a financial crisis this calendar year?

2a.   If you have answered yes to question 2, please explain how this has happened given the strength of the balance sheets and decades of strong, positive financial performance.

If the answer to question 2 is no, you have your own axe to sharpen . . .

*Riley Chance, a nom de plume, is an author who also works in education and management. 

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Nice one, "Riley".


The unis are required (by govt) to run a small surplus. So they do, because they have no choice in the matter. 


aaaand  interest hits a new low



What does that mean? Your post is pointless without some explanation.


If you can't tell just stop reading, it's not working for you


"Remember we welcome robust, respectful and insightful debate"

Within this guideline, I'd like to robustly, and respectfully share that I don't think you are being insightful....




Good article. Does seem to be a bit of a problem with running everything "as a business" rather than recognising that education is an investment in the future capability and living standards of the country.

And as Sir Peter Gluckman has pointed out on a related matter, we invest only half the amount in R&D that's been demonstrated by overseas experience as required to act as an incubator for growth of local industry.


1 in 4 R&D dollars spent by the average American university is sourced from its own funds. The number is around 1 in 12 dollars spent by an NZ uni.

So, a uni being run as a forward-looking, high-value business instead of a dodgy paper mill targeted towards international students would be a good start.


The American problem though is a massive student debt bubble that won't be repaid, and tremendous administrative salaries. And training costs have soared because they've been able to easily indebt younger "own funds" is interesting. It's not really the most business-y of models if it's just based on getting rich by passing massive debts to younger's got more in common with our housing policy over the last two decades.

It was only recently too that the USA ticked under 50% of all research being taxpayer funded, interestingly. 


Without having to even dig here, it's obvious that the golden goose (foreign students) had been cooked, leading to the 'easy money' for education providers being stymied.  

They'll never be coming back like before. The education export is a rort and is not good value for many of the end consumers. Might be a convoluted way of selling visas, but that industry is potentially rooted in the near term as well.   

From mentor Scott Galloway on the state of education in the U.S. (similar to the Anglosphere in general):

Higher ed presents a promise for America and the world. But every year, my industry falls further from that promise. The underpinnings of that view are simple and static: Higher ed has increased its prices by 1,400 percent since the late 1970s, but the product has not appreciably changed — the biggest cost driver is administrative bloat. And, rather than catalyzing economic mobility, U.S. higher ed is stifling it. At 38 of the top 100 colleges in America, including five of the Ivies, there are more students from the top 1 percent of income earning households than there are from the bottom 60 percent


Good points.

The most egregious of the lot was the rort that was the Pretend Tertiary Education (PTE) sector here, effectively selling visas and nothing more to foreign students for $15k. I have friends who went through it to migrate to NZ and, boy, the stories...

But definitely time we stopped seeing education as a way to milk the young and focused on it as an investment instead.


We're on the same plane for sure. 



Our world is lit by "gaslight".

How much of what you know can you prove is real? And who controls what you know? 


I was once told by an accountant, profit is what the accountant decides it should be, cash flow is the name of the game.

The drop in high paying overseas student could put Massey and AUT in an adverse financial position. I'm not going to look at the accounts but perhaps retained earnings should be more of a guide to the Unis financial than profit over the previous few years.