Tertiary Teaching in NZ: Work Conditions 101

If you’ve been following the news, you’ll be aware that primary and secondary school teachers went on a ‘mega-strike’ recently to protest against their pay and working conditions.

Given that many thesis writers go on to careers in tertiary education, this seems like an appropriate time to talk about working conditions for tertiary educators. So: if you are considering a career in tertiary education in NZ, what might your work-life look like? Here’s an overview.

Contracts & Responsibilities

First of all, bear in mind that unlike primary and secondary teachers, academics balance teaching with research. There’s also a far broader range of roles and ranks in tertiary education.

The specific balance of teaching and research varies in different roles. If you’re a postdoc, for instance, you may do no teaching at all. If you’re a tutor, you may do only teaching. However, the ‘traditional’ academic lecturing role in New Zealand universities is generally (and there are many exceptions) broken down into 40% teaching, 40% research, and 20% service work.

It’s worth noting that traditional lecturing roles can be hard to come by lately. A lot of tertiary teachers – more than 40% in NZ, according to OECD data (Gilbert, 2013) – are so-called ‘sessional’ staff. They don’t have full-time, permanent roles, and many are hired on fixed-term contracts for a semester or an academic year.

Permanent academic staff, however, are usually employed under collective contracts. That means that their contractual obligations, salary, and working conditions are largely standardised. There is a standard payscale, standard procedures for progression, and standard leave entitlements.

At AUT and in most NZ tertiary institutions, the collective academic contracts are negotiated between each institution and the Tertiary Education Union (TEU). The TEU represents approximately 10,000 employees of universities, polytechnics, wānanga and private training institutions across NZ. They publish collective contracts on the websites for each ‘branch’ of the union, so if you’re considering a role at a New Zealand university, you can usually view their collective contracts online.

Ranks & salaries

The standard academic rank progression in New Zealand goes like this:

  • Tutor
  • Senior tutor
  • Lecturer
  • Senior Lecturer
  • Associate Professor
  • Professor

There are subtle gradations within these ranks too. Many universities have a salary schedule which lays out ‘steps’ or ‘bars’ – so you might hear talk of someone being, for instance, a Senior Lecturer ‘above the bar’. That means they have the Senior Lecturer rank, but with a higher salary and closer to progression.

Salaries and responsibilities vary across universities, and career paths vary across disciplines. That being said, if you plan to enter the academic workforce after gaining a PhD (and if you’re lucky enough to get a permanent role) you’d generally be in line for a lecturer rank and a starting salary in the region of NZ$70,000-90,000 – though again, there are many exceptions. Academic salaries can rise to a ballpark $150,000 for professors on collective agreements; but at that level, many negotiate individual contracts which can pay more.

Workload & Hours

Collective contracts typically set a standard number of hours for the working week. Assuming a 40-hour working week, the 40/40/20 balance in a traditional lecturing role equates to 16 hours’ each of teaching and research, and 8 hours’ service per week. However, in reality, that is highly variable. The amount of time spent on teaching, research, and service can vary between different roles, or even within a role as work demands fluctuate across semesters, or week-to-week.

Typically, teaching hours aren’t all spent in lecture theatres and tutorial rooms. There is usually some allotment of time for course design, lesson planning, preparing materials, and so on. However, in practice, many academics report working far more than their contracted hours in order to get everything done.

A series of surveys of academic staff members at Massey University found that approximately 90% of staff worked outside of their contracted hours in the week prior to the surveys. More than a third estimated that they had worked more than 10 hours beyond their full-time hours (Houston, Meyer, & Paewai, 2006).

The digital era is changing tertiary teaching workloads too, as more and more teaching moves online. Research at the University of Waikato found that most lecturers transitioning to elearning models perceived that “either equivalent time or more time is invested in elearning than learning delivered by face-to-face teaching” (Bright, 2012, p.2). Most also noted that a lot of their online teaching work was happening outside traditional office hours, “forcing lecturers into the role of the ’24/7 professor'” (Bright, 2012, p.3). This could mean that tertiary teaching is moving further away from the standard 9-to-5 workday.

Read more

If a career in tertiary teaching appeals to you, you may like to check out our previous posts about academic careers:

5 Things You May Not Know About Academic Careers

Is a Postdoc Right for You?

What to Expect at an Academic Job Interview

If you’re thinking about other career paths, check out our post on Alternative Academic Career Options or come along to one of our postgrad AUT Careers workshops on how to prepare for non-academic roles.


Bright, S. (2012, November). eLearning lecturer workload: working smarter or working harder?. Paper presented at the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education Conference, Wellington, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/6729

Gilbert, A. (2013). Introduction: the expansion of part-time teaching in higher education and its consequences. In Beaton, F. & Gilbert, A. (eds.), Developing effective part-time teachers in higher education: new approaches to professional development, Routledge, London, 1-17.

Houston, D., Meyer, L. H., & Paewai, S. (2006). Academic staff workloads and job satisfaction: Expectations and values in academe. Journal of higher education policy and management, 28(1), 17-30. doi: 10.1080/13600800500283734

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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