Tales from the Lockdown #9: a conversation with Kate Kearins, Auckland University of Technology

25 May 2020


In this series of conversations, our guests talk to Senior Consultant Claudia Monteiro about what they're learning during the pandemic and what future they're imagining.


Kate Kearins is Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of Business, Economic and Law at Auckland University of Technology

Name one change that you or your organisation has been forced to take that you’d like to carry into the future?  

We've been talking about exams not being great pedagogy and causing lots of stress for so many years. And now we’ve eliminated them!  

How often in the real world of work are you asked to sort out an issue or give answers on several different scenarios, sitting in isolation without consulting with your peers?  We pride ourselves on authentic practice-based assessment and exams are not a great example of that. Diminishing the number of exams is something that would have taken years to do with soft approaches. And yet this disruption brought us here overnight with the cooperation of professional bodies in accounting and finance, who relaxed their demands in this area for now.  

We redesigned the content of some assessment tasks and given students a longer timeframe to hand them over. We still privilege a fair amount of individual assessment but now students might have 24 hours to do some of the things they might have done in an exam so they can juggle that with their home lives. Many of our students have siblings or young children living with them and jobs to support themselves and their families and we wanted to accommodate everyone. Our university bought 1500 laptops for students without access to computers at home and 4,000 data packages for those with no remote access so they have the tools to continue their studies. 

Can you reflect on one area that you might let go of, going forward?  

Exams for sure! Massively big meetings with many participants unable to contribute are not good use of time either, so I hope to see those go. In the beginning we were constantly ‘on’ so we decided at some point to stop emailing each other outside of office hours. It doesn’t mean you stop working if you really have to, it just means you’re not placing that burden on others and being mindful of their wellbeing and the fact they have other priorities. 

What aren’t we talking enough about during this crisis?  

Downunder, I think there is a sense we might have gotten through the worst of things – but maybe we haven’t. In New Zealand we’ve had just over 1500 COVID-19 cases and 21 deaths and lockdown is over – for now. Who really knows whether we’ll have another spike or spikes? But there’s a huge thirst for getting back to normal – and for many people that also means getting back to moving around the world. There’s little discussion about ourselves and our Australian cousins who’ve also done well at ‘flattening the curve’ with COVID-19, but now we have populations with low to no antibodies much more at risk when travel outside our border resumes. 

So our academics might find long-haul travel off the menu for quite a while, while universities struggle to meet budgets because of reduced revenues from international students. Building new relationships could become harder for academics. Our faculty often co-author publications with academics from around the world, and lack of travel will have an impact on international comparative research, our research output and on rankings too.  

On the other hand, we’re concerned about our international students not being able to get into New Zealand. Many of them stay on after graduation and contribute hugely to our country. International education is our fifth largest export earner, supporting around 45 000 jobs. We know students and their families will favor those countries that managed this pandemic successfully but still, we don’t know when we’ll be ready to open our borders and welcome them in person again.  

Tell us a tale of one of your local heroes, a person or a group within your university or school community who have pulled out all the stops at this time of crisis.  

Personal politics aside, almost everyone agrees our Prime Minister has been an exemplary leader throughout. Jacinda Ardern is empathetic and caring, works collaboratively in the collective interest, and is a great communicator.

She acted boldly taking the country into lockdown early on and decisively, consulting with the experts and sharing the podium with them daily. She talks about New Zealand being ‘a team of five million’ and everyone playing their part in getting through this successfully. People certainly came on board. We should also remember there were those who said she could not be a good prime minister, because she didn’t rule out having children. She now has a young child – and she is successful, really pulling out the stops. There’s a story there for all of us about empathy.  

There are many heroes in the Business School who have shown this kind of empathy for each other and for our students, too. I’m talking about staff working at home in lockdown, getting courses online, with family and other responsibilities, sometimes little space to work in, worried about what’s going to happen, family members’ jobs on the line. It hasn’t been an easy time for many, and I am lucky to work with them. 

What’s surprised you the most once normality disappeared and your organisation had to adapt to a different reality?  

I was really delighted with how fit for purpose our structures at the business school are. We have small, able and agile teams who are prepared to try different things. I thought that might be the case, but people went way beyond my expectations. They were prepared to pivot, lean into something new and be part of picking up the pieces when we decided it was a fail-fast scenario and we needed to backflip. A lot of the business vernacular we teach really came into practice within our own school. 

Early on, we were planning for a scenario where we’d move into block teaching mode across the university – four straight weeks of course X before we started with course Y etc – which would give us time to produce online materials in the best possible way to suit our diverse student body, some of whom who had online access difficulties. And we were worried about the possibility of many more of our staff and students becoming ill – which so far thank goodness has not happened.  

It was quite an experience to be part of leading staff into (and back out of) a wholesale change for delivery to 30,000 students across the whole university. It showed we’re quite entrepreneurial, with colleagues asking the right questions to help overcome obstacles. And when we realised that block mode wasn’t going to work for everyone – some students and staff loved the idea and others most certainly did not - we moved back into semester teaching mode wholly online with colleagues taking a very compassionate view of making it work best for students in difficult circumstances.  

Photo: Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels


Read more Tales of the Lockdown with

Kai Peters, Coventry University, UK

Molly Ihlbrock, ESMT Berlin, Germany

Dil Sidhu, Coursera, USA

Sarah Lethbridge, Cardiff Business School, UK 

Ivan Bofarull, ESADE, Spain

Rob Angell, Southampton University Business School, UK

Antonio Batista, Fundação Dom Cabral, Brazil

Yusra Mouzughi, Muscat University, Oman

Daniel Traça, Nova School of Business and Economics (Nova SBE), Portugal




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