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'Incredible' $1 million paid to former minister by university

Steven Joyce
Steven Joyce was tertiary education minister in previous National-led governments. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Cash-strapped Waikato University has paid nearly $1 million to an advisory firm run by former National Party cabinet minister Steven Joyce.

RNZ obtained records detailing dozens of invoices from Joyce Advisory Ltd to Waikato University between December 2019 and December 2022, totaling $966,000.

Tertiary Education Union organiser at Waikato University Shane Vugler said the union was "shocked and appalled" by the amount of money the university had spent on Joyce Advisory.

"Frankly it's incredible and for the staff it's insulting."

Vugler said that over the past three years the university had been under significant financial pressure and staff had to accept salary settlements well below inflation, reduced numbers and increased workloads.

"The justification given to us by the Vice Chancellor throughout this period has been, 'we haven't got the money to be able to address these issues for staff' yet they seem to be able to find a million dollars to pay Steven Joyce," he said.

"It's insulting to all of those staff who have been working their butts off over the last three years to deliver to students and to deliver to the university in very challenging times."

Last week Waikato University confirmed it planned to cut 11 staff in its IT and mathematics departments.

Financial problems are plaguing the entire university sector, which faced one of its worst years ever in 2022.

Several hundred job cuts are expected at Otago University, Victoria University of Wellington is cutting about 250 roles, and Massey University is also considering reducing staff.

Joyce did not respond to RNZ's requests for comment.

Waikato University refused an interview but in a statement Vice Chancellor Neil Quigely said Joyce was contracted in 2019, initially to lead a "new brand campaign and strategy for student recruitment".

Quigley said Joyce's work had shifted in focus from "programme and course advice for individuals to selling the wider university story" to key audiences.

"Steven's involvement in this work has led to the university increasing its market share of school leavers over the past two years, despite a decrease in both the Year 13 cohort size and the proportion of students achieving University Entrance," Quigley said.

"This is a notable success in the current environment and has helped ensure the university's financial and operational sustainability. He has continued to provide strategic advice relating to recruitment and marketing."

Quigley said Joyce had chaired an enrolment review which helped increase "application to enrolment conversion rates" for 2023.

He had also worked on initiatives to build Waikato Management School's profile and reputation, including a stronger alignment between university programmes and industry needs.

Waikato University has been paying Steven Joyce for various roles since December 2019. Photo:

Joyce is a former tertiary education minister who sometimes writes about the sector in his opinion articles for New Zealand Herald.

His 3 June column was headlined 'Govt selling our future short by starving universities' and lamented the lack of money Labour was spending on the sector.

In the opinion piece, which carried a disclaimer saying Joyce "works with clients in the tertiary sector," he wrote that universities have "inexplicably been on hunger rations for the entire term".

He also urged the Tertiary Education Union to speak up about the lack of funding, writing that "what they have been given by this government amounts to a cold shoulder".

Quigley said Joyce had also chaired the university management school's Business Advisory Board since 2020.

"Steven Joyce's demonstrated and extensive experience in business and marketing has made a significant contribution to the university in parallel with our executive team."

Joyce's services did not include government relations or lobbying, as the university paid lobbying firm Capital Government Relations for that work, Quigley said.

In March RNZ revealed that Waikato had paid a $6900 monthly retainer to Capital Government Relations, spending about $262,000 between January 2020 and February 2023.

Other universities, despite having their own communications and PR teams, are also paying lobbying firms.

Massey University uses former Labour Party cabinet minister Clayton Cosgrove and has paid his company nearly $64,000 since 2020.

AUT paid lobbying firm Sherson Willis $16,220 for communications advice between June and October in 2020 and spent $15,266 on communications advice from Thompson Lewis between January and March in 2021.

Auckland University paid $10,000 to Sherson Willis in 2021.