Last week, confirmation came in from the Chancellery that UWA’s restructure will pare down the current nine faculties to just four – not three or five, as were other options previously on the table. The structure is almost indistinguishable to that proposed in March. Yet Deputy Vice-Chancellor Dawn Freshwater assures “it is documented very clearly in the audit trail…the number of faculties and the names and the scope of those faculties has been undone, unravelled, done back up, and undone again numerous times”. So it was all worthwhile then.

The decision will make UWA the smallest in terms of faculty number within Australia’s Group of Eight. It also shifts the gears in the Renewal Project, as the university transitions from the ‘Design’ phase of the process to the ‘Build’ phase, as the Deputy Vice told staff at an Open Forum on Friday.

Speaking to a packed Octagon theatre, Freshwater – head of the Central Oversight Panel, the evaluations body for determining staff reductions and re-orderings – dominated the floor. She was preceded only briefly by Vice-Chancellor Paul Johnson, who opened with springy rhetoric about UWA’s need to be “agile” – particularly at a time when Higher Education was swept from the election agenda of both major parties, and partial deregulation looks likely.

The outcome of the forum can be best expressed in the video below.

 

Since December’s 300 cuts announcement, staff have lived under a heavy and unpleasant fog of uncertainty over whether they would still have a place in the university by the end of the year, under what pay conditions, and where exactly they’d fit in. Many entered the forum with hopes for clarification. Instead, the audience was served an hour of information-heavy PowerPoint slides, needless reminders, and evasive academese. It was moreover delivered by the Deputy Vice in a manner which can only be described as condescending. When an audience member remarked that the language of one slide lacked clarity, Freshwater sniffed that it was the “language used” when these kinds of decisions are made. The best kind of language, though, for enlightening hundreds of tense and perplexed staff?

On the subject of enlightenment: what does this ‘Build’ phase mean, anyway? Well, it seems to mark a period over which service delivery models under the new university structures will be developed. The process will be overseen by six ‘work streams’ within so-named Academic Restructure and Service Delivery Project Teams. The emphasis remains on ‘engagement’ however – translating into either “we appreciate you and want to work with you” or “oh god please help us because we’re just of muddling our way through here”. Or indeed, both.

Academic substructures – i.e. the placement of schools, centres and institutions within the four faculties – remains unfixed and up for debate. For instance, should the Oceans Institute Graduate School be under the Faculty of Engineering & Faculty Sciences, or the Faculty of Science? One would expect that squashing nine faculties into four is bound to result in a certain degree of incohesion and lumpiness. Before being put to the Senate for endorsement in October however, there remain “options, possibilities and synergies” to be explored, Freshwater said.

A big cut of the talk was given over to Service Delivery Centres, or SDCs. These centres, Freshwater argues, represent a “powerful devolution” of the current model and will be a component of each of the four faculties, as well as a ‘Central Division’ (where centralised decisions are made, like dealing with complaints, branding, or issuing media statements to the government). Described as “primary points of service” for the “localised delivery of university-wide frameworks”, the centres will connect staff and students to the full kit and caboodle of services, from IT to finance, as tailored to the faculty’s (i.e. the ‘client’s) needs. (As a side-note: one wonders how these centres will impact our shiny new Student Services.) The number of staff engaged by each SDC, the expertise mix, and the terms of contract – these are yet to be decided. So are the specific chains of reportage and accountability.

As to staff in areas outsides the faculties – where exactly they will be slotted in – this too is loomed over by a large: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ .

Says one anonymous staff member in a private and exclusive statement to Pelican, “The deliberate obfuscation and condescension are particularly galling. At each meeting through the year the VC and Freshwater give next to no useful information, either because they have no strategic plan or because they just do not want to own up to one. A good proportion of the meeting gets devoted to background and context, conveniently limiting time available for questions.

“In amongst this all, there is of course no consideration for the dive the student experience at UWA will take – what with huge reductions in academic and professional staff together with a push to increase student numbers. It’s telling that most of the examples that the exec have been willing to discuss regarding the service delivery centres, for example, have been to do with accounts, payroll and the like. Actual teaching, research, student support? These are missing.”

It is all very nebulous at the moment. Freshwater did assure the forum that the hundreds of staff feedback submissions sent in over the March – April consultation period (extended only after the NTEU took the Renewal to the Fair Work Commission) had been registered and incorporated into the Design phase. With only private submissions allowed previously, the feedback will be summarised and made available to staff in the near future. More feedback to fine-tune substructures so that they served the needs of each ‘client’ (the faculty) was exhorted.

On the matter of staff cuts, outside Freshwater’s acknowledgment of staff “angst”, very little was said. More time, in fact, was given to the absorption of 50 more staff, which is also part of the university’s renewal plans. Bit of salt in the wound there, really.

As predicted earlier in the year, the whittling away of hundreds of professional and academic staff seems to be an operation of stealth, designed to go ahead with minimal fanfare. How many have been made redundant? Who are they? Does the number still sit at 300? Will students only find out their favourite lecturer has been turned out when they find them red-eyed and slumped behind a last-lecture lectern? This writer is hardly proposing a Hunger Games style countdown, but greater transparency would surely be more than a courtesy. So oppressive has the atmosphere of scrutiny and uncertainty become, a contingent of staff are choosing to jump ship of their own accord, heading into early retirement or chasing more stable careers over east. As if Melbourne hasn’t taken enough of our number already.

One moment in the forum stands out in memory. Replying to a query concerning lines of accountability during question time, Freshwater said “well, it’s a question to be answered, isn’t it?” This prompted an enormous guffaw from the otherwise subdued audience. It somehow seemed to summarise the whole affair.

Words by Kate Prendergast

If any staff member – disgruntled or no – wishes to talk to us, we would be very happy to hear from you. Best visit us in our office though, and book an appointment via paper mail – after the ridiculously punitive ‘sacked for a meme’ episode, we’re pretty paranoid about email monitoring. And we certainly don’t want to have anyone risk their jobs for exercising their freedom of opinion. Exceptionally ugly times, these.

As an alternative, I suppose we could learn from our Australian politicians and do all our sensitive liaising through Wickr.