28 July 2011

Are university employees subject to the same integrity obligations as  State servants?

Police are investigating the misappropriation of about $500,000 from the Auckland University of Technology. A contemporaneous report is that a senior University manager has resigned.  Circumstances like this bring into question the claim by university staff that they are different from other government employees, and should be exempt from integrity expectation held of others.

New Zealand has 29 state funded tertiary education institutions – eight universities, eighteen polytechnics and three wananga.  TEIs have a hybrid form of governance.  They are Crown entities but few parts of the Crown Entities Act apply to them.  They are part of the Crown but, like State owned enterprises, are excluded from the State Sector Act definition of the State Services. They seek to distance themselves from the Crown but enjoy non rateable status on their inner city heritage properties because of the Crown relationship.

TEI staff are officials for the purposes of the Crimes Act – of particular relevance to bribery and corruption offences – but are excluded both from the State Services Commissioner’s standards of integrity and his general jurisdiction regarding advice and guidance on matters of integrity and conduct.

The rationale for this distinction is that universities are the conscience of the nation; their intellectual endeavour should not be circumscribed, their academic freedom is essential.  Standards cannot be imposed on TEI employees, and members of governing boards are not subject to the integrity duties of Crown entity members. Ironically of course many in TEIs  do no research or teaching and have no justifiable claim to academic freedom.

However, there is more than one way to skin a cat.  All are subject to the ubiquitous application of the Cabinet Manual. TEIs are part of the State sector, and subject to the provision requiring that “all employees in the State sector must act with a spirit of service to the community and meet high standards of integrity and conduct in everything they do. In particular, employees must be fair, impartial, responsible, and trustworthy.”

These four principles of public service are informed by the State Services Commissioner’s code. Guidance on Understanding the Code explains what they mean.  There would never be doubt about the apparent offending reported at AUT, but with the impending general election, TEI staff should consider whether in fact they have the political neutrality obligations of State servants.