Early last week, the UWA Senate decided that the university would go right on ahead and embark upon its steamrolling of the Renewal Project under the banners of Change and Progress, with VP Paul Johnson presumably giving an irritable and almighty shrug from within his drab yet expensive suit. December’s proposal – which would see up to 300 staff out of their jobs along with major structural and administrative changes – has now officially become an out-and-out Plan that will Definitely Go Ahead so Go Away Unions and Annoy Some Other Soulless Institution Why Don’t You.

The announcement was circulated early last week in emails to staff, students and graduates. Linked to this was the document Renewal Project – Decision on the Proposal for Change, and a YouTube video in which Johnson and Deputy Vice Chancellor Dawn Freshwater (the latter charged with carriage of process) defend the Project in the respective tones of the querulously insistent and the tremulously uncertain. Whilst the video is mainly a self-justifying slough of buzzwords lacking in substance, it comes recommended if only for Freshwater’s many alarming pauses before positive phrases like ‘great educational experience’ and ‘strengths in research’.

Whether the proposed ‘300’ has been adjusted downward is anybody’s guess. Until the methodology reviews for deciding staff redundancies have been finalized, it remains an ‘estimate’. A letter by Paul Johnson to the Academic Staff Association, as reproduced by Campus Morning Mail, is less than promising however.

“Extensive staff engagement…has not produced any alternative proposals that meet the university’s savings and efficiency objectives” the VC wrote. “There has, however, been significant support for immediately moving ahead with the renewal proposals in order to provide clarity and certainty to staff.”

Of course, the underlying message here is that the strong, ongoing and united criticism from staff, students, alumni and unions has meant close to fuck all to these top decision-makers.

It’s been argued that the amalgamation of the existing nine faculties into four is an oversimplification. That maximising automation at the cost of human resources is a false and greed-driven solution to administrative problems. That the university is prioritising league table rankings over quality of education. That the cuts will result in a ballooning of tute sizes, with more online classrooms leading to a less engaged student populace, and greater workloads for staff increasing their stress levels and decreasing time and attention available for cohorts. That HDR students will be left in the lurch if their supervisor is suddenly vanished. That UWA’s so-called ‘budget challenge’ doesn’t even exist.

What sounds like 21st century innovation is instead 21st century shortcuts.

The last few months up until this point have been stacked with a run of counter-initiatives by various groups, all geared to addressing the proposal’s shortcomings, dubious utilitarianism and unabashed insensitivity of process. Forums have been held, meetings had, and 331 feedback submissions written. Protests have been organized by student communities and campus clubs. Memes were circulated. Senior administer of the UWA School of Indigenous Studies James Mitton was sacked because memes were circulated.

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) has throughout been at the vanguard of the struggle; questioning the legitimacy of the cited financial insecurity and pointing incredulously to last year’s widely-mocked million-dollar rebranding campaign. In February, they succeeded in bringing their dispute to the Fair Work Commission, which resolved UWA was at risk of breaching Enterprise Agreements in their failure to adequately involve staff and union representatives. Following Fair Work’s decision, the university agreed to extend their consultation period (albeit by just a smidge of a little over 2 weeks), and conceded their December statement was perhaps a little ‘premature’. Although no guarantee was given, UWA was required to consider savings alternatives which went beyond the hacking out of human chunks from the staff body.

Several of these alternatives, as submitted by staff, were summarised in the aforementioned Decision on the Proposal for Change document. The two noted as hypothetically able to recuperate savings were to:

  • Sell university assets to buy time to allow for staff reduction via attrition
  • Reduce salary costs through:
    • Reducing all staff salaries by a percentage; or
    • All staff working a 35 hour week; or
    • All staff working a 9 day fortnight.

Both were rejected – the first on the basis of the university having no viable material assets to hawk out (I will pay $400 for that Lawrence the Peacock suit just so I can set it alight on a pyre and float it out on the Matilda Bay waters), and the second because reducing wages is hardly a move to endear you to already soured, untrusting employees, or to attract new ones.

Plus, salary reductions and changes to work hours will mean fiddling about with Enterprise Bargaining Agreements, which is a dull, time-consuming process and not really something they can do this year.

So, where do we find ourselves at the end of this saga? Not very far from the beginning. It seems all that has been achieved is the delaying an outcome that was non-negotiable from the first. Staff feedback– encouraged from day one (‘thank you!’ says PJ) – we may as well understand to be just a token mock salute to the Fair Work Commission, and a false mollifier to those whose livelihoods are on the line.

UWA staff and students deserve a university which doesn’t ignore them in its chase after premium international student dollar. Staff deserve job security, and a work environment which enables them to cultivate student knowledge and curiosity, and pursue their own quality research interests. Students deserve a university which doesn’t look more and more every day like a malfunctioning MOOC. Collectively, repeatedly, this has been demanded. Whether our university has listened to us, we’ve yet to fully find out.

 


ADDENDA

EXPLAIN ME: THE UWA RENEWAL PROJECT

The aim of the UWA Renewal Project is to create a more efficient and streamlined operating business model for the university, to help it maintain sustainability and viability in the long term future. Citing a ‘budget crisis’ and a new landscape of challenges (such as decreased federal funding, the spectre of deregulation, and increased international competition), the university hopes to create $40 million in savings in the coming years to reinvest into core IT and infrastructure. (Campus hack: Keep an eye on the Reid carpark skips for discarded projectors).

The project’s dream is to ‘achieve the University’s goal of becoming one of the world’s top 50 universities by 2050.’ Currently, UWA sits at number 98 on the QS World University Rankings, from where it has slid 21 spots in three years. Hints are given as to the origins of UWA’s new motto.

The restructure is geared around two major initiatives. The first is to whittle down and somehow slam together the university’s existing nine faculties into four, with processes standardised, efficiency maximised, flexibility assured, and duplications dealt with. After an avalanche of negative feedback on the titles ‘College of Natural and Physical Science’, ‘College of Engineering and Technical Science’, ‘College of Health and Medical Science’ and ‘College of Social Science’, these were all thrown overboard. New titles will be devised once the substructure of these faculties has been hashed out.

The School of Indigenous Studies (SIS) is oddly positioned under the new changes. In the words of the February Proposal, it will “sit organisationally outside the new…structure and remain at a strategic level”. Unlike the four colleges, it is “envisaged the SIS would report directly to the Executive”, rather than partake in it. Despite calls for the SIS to be either incorporated into an existing faculty, or become one in itself, the Senate decided to keep with the original proposal, and has made no changes to the four-faculty structure. It will however, as with the four new faculties, get its own Service Delivery Centre (SDC). We are yet to fully understand what exactly these SDC’s will do.

The amalgamation will mean UWA will have the leanest faculty number in the Group of Eight (check out the table below). With scorn across the board, these four will no longer go under the proposed cosmopolitan title of ‘colleges’ but retain the title of ‘faculties’. Only a shame when you consider that they probably spent hundreds on that branding idea.

go8

The second cost-cutting measure is the hundreds of professional and academic staff that will be declared redundant by the end of the year. Will it be 300? Who knows! To be revealed next round. Like most universities, while UWA gets most of its revenue through teaching, it also spends most of its budget on staff pay-roll – which is why it’s this budget line that’s seeing scissors.

Once the new academic structure has been finalized, 50 new academic positions will be opened up. The hiring process will be set to be sympathetic to what UWA considers ‘research priority areas’ – those which are identified as producing the most benefits to feed back into the greater Australian community. Read: another pointless study into the benefits of coffee, Business school staff celebrate, English Department staff seek increased antidepressant dosage. Climate change sceptics presumably welcome.

Research alacrity is also given high value: UWA wants results. In its February document Proposal For Change, the university waspishly notes that “99 academic staff on tenured or tenurable appointments, as well as 53 academic staff on fixed term contracts, had produced less than five publications over the last five years”. Perhaps if tute sizes were a little smaller, and marking loads a little lighter, these figures would be different.

The proposal also outlines the staff evaluation process, which would determine who will stay and who will start thinking they really should’ve chosen a more lucrative side-hobby than life pottery and/or Dark Morris Dancing Instructor. To be fair, the process is probably the best that could be hoped for under the circumstances, with each faculty drafting their own custom methodology for assessment, and an “independent, central oversight panel” convened to oversee it all. It’s not perfect, but it’s trying. Accounting for the period of 2009-14, academic staff will be evaluated under the key indicators of 1) “Research publication outputs or creative equivalent” 2) “Teaching quality as determined by SURF scores” (should’ve filled that survey in) 3) “Service to the university” 4) “Leadership and development”.

The contracts of fixed term staff will be honoured. Individual staff have been encouraged to take up the lying gun themselves and submit an expression of interest for redundancy. In an attempt at accommodation, the university has offered academic staff the option to dump their research and apply for ‘teaching only’ or ‘professional’ positions. Small, semi-insulting solace.

Words by Kate Prendergast