Grim tidings hit UWA staff yesterday, with the announcement that 230 full-time equivalent professional workers are now to lose their jobs under the proposed administrative restructure. This is an increase of 30 from the earlier figure of 200 – a figure that was, mind, put up even before the Fair Work Commission demanded the University extend its process of consultation after pressure from the NTEU.

The decision will cull professional FTE staff from 1,542 down to 1,312. Does the number include those who have opted to ‘jump ship’ of their own accord? We’re waiting for a reply from the Deputy Vice-Chancellor on that one. Several squadrons of professional staff can heave a sigh of relief however, being listed as ‘out of scope’ (management-speak for out of the firing line) – including business units such as PIAF, Child Care Services, UWA Sport, and the Albany Centre. For others, and as Campus Morning Mail (CMM) reported this morning, “anybody who fears they will not be happy in the new service will not have much time to decide to go – VR [voluntary redundancy] applications close on September 2.” However, as the document states, “the University has no obligation to accept any staff member’s voluntary redundancy request”. Well then.

Beyond the added cuts, the updated proposal brings added insight to the University’s service delivery structure to be rolled out. The centrepiece of this latest phase of the Renewal Process, it will see the creation of five ‘Service Delivery Centres’ (SDCs) – one for each of the four new faculties, and one for the central administrative divisions and School of Indigenous Studies.

For those that do remain, the restructure looks to be about as painless as the shattering and then resetting almost every bone in the University professional body. There’s going to be a whole lot of shaking down and shuffling about – with services slammed together, outsourced and tossed overboard – as staff are transferred from their current positions to ones within the new SDCs. Of interest to students, for instance, Student Life and Student Administration will be amalgamated under a new ‘Student Experience’ portfolio, with admissions now to be administered under Brand, Marketing & Recruitment. A good move? We shall see. The keyword found everywhere is: streamlining.

Upon being notified of their new position (in a yet unspecified location), staff will have just three days to ask for a formal review of their transfer. (I doubt the petition “but I’ve worked alongside Angie for thirty years; we share a key lime pie every day at 3” is going to fly. Because I am a sentimental, this makes me sad.)

The process aims for standardisation where needed and automation where possible, for greater mobility, the elimination of double-up services, and to achieve overall streamlined functioning (somewhere, Don Watson winces). CMM “gives it six months for the various baronies in brand, marketing, recruitment, development alumni, and business development to start skirmishing for territory.” Among its long preamble of justification, the proposal cites the new demand-driven system (which has Universities no longer capping placements for students) and the internationalisation of the student market (that overseas student dollar is premium, and “unless you really like windsurfing”, as someone lately quipped, Perth isn’t likely to be the first option, lagging in popular appeal as it is behind ‘most livable city’ Melbourne).

The driving motive behind this whole restructuring is, well, to make more money. Fretting about global rankings (we learnt 10 days ago that we are four places away from getting knocked out of the top 100), UWA is angling to generate an operating surplus of $35 million annually. This money would constitute a ‘future fund’ to invest in “world-class” infrastructure and IT, and to sink into research priority areas. What gives priority to a research area though? Pelican wonders. Given our University very almost invested $4 million into ‘climate change is okay!’ Bjorn Lomborg’s Consensus Centre last year, there is good reason to be worried.

The document drops five days before another forum next week. Open to staff and “relevant unions”, it is assured “additional detail relating to positions and structures” will be soon to follow, with more opportunities for consultation offered. The forum is to be headed by Deputy Vice-Chancellor Dawn Freshwater (the face of the Renewal Project) and Vice-Chancellor Paul Johnson (the puppet-master). Whether it will – as with last forum – be just another case of University leaders equivocating and boring everybody’s socks off with blandishments, followed by ten or so minutes of hurried question time, is anybody’s guess. My guess is: probably.

The announcement further undermines not only trust, but confidence in the University leadership. For the last eight months or so, staff have been dragged along, bullied, ignored, dismissed and made to indefinitely endure a climate of anxiety, paranoia and frustration over their future job security. Yesterday, they learned that the situation was even worse than they had initially been led to believe. What kind of University is our Vice-Chancellor manufacturing here? Under what kind of logic? An institution of learning, grounded in UWA’s deep history and tradition should not be picked apart as a machine geared only towards achieving ‘economies of scale’.

As Academic Staff Association writer and Senior Honorary Research Fellow Victoria Burbank wrote in an open ‘academic manifesto’ from June, “we do not see any advantage to running a university like K-Mart”.

Words by Kate Prendergast

4 thought on “Another nasty surprise: UWA now to axe 230 professional staff”
  1. A fairly accurate if depressing view of what is likely to happen. The model is taken from Engineering, where it has had a troubled history. Former Engineering staff do not speak kindly of the Faculty. I have some concerns. The Service Delivery Centres are supposed to have a uniform structure. So if a school has used its professional staff in innovative ways, they will have to adjust to losing that innovation and getting “standard service” instead.
    But I think the most interesting time will be the start of first semester next year. This is always a busy time of year, and now with about 10% less staff to handle it, working in roles they aren’t used to, things could go a bit pear shaped.
    One sometimes wonders how management works in a large organisation. I think it goes something like this. Firstly management identify a problem. It usually is a real problem that does need solving. Then management proposes a solution and makes new rules. Sensible rules, often with flexibility built in. These rules are communicated to those who actually make things work, who immediately realise that the rules as stated won’t work. They re-think the rules and come up with ways of making them work, which are then communicated back to management, who realise that the proposed modifications are an improvement, and go with them. The new system is then introduced with only minor fuss, and the problem that caused the change is solved.
    However, in this instance I think it will play out a little differently. Management will implement the staff cuts and reorganisation as planned. In February and March of 2017 there will be carnage as everyone adjusts to the lack of staff and the new system. The good will of the staff will evaporate, and the university will run like an old PC with a failing hard drive and a virus. Management will apply oil to the squeakiest wheels, and keep the uni chugging along. Organisational changes will be made, and the most harmful effects of the re-organisation will be fixed. Over time, the new structure will gradually be changed for the better, and everything will return to some sort of normal. Who knows, it might even be better than before (but “better” by whose standards?).
    But right now, I can’t see how next year will be good, for students or staff.

  2. Overheard a member of the shrinking executive explain straight-faced that this is chaos management.

    “You bang things together and see what falls out.”

    What should one expect to pay for this type of leadership?

  3. It’s no accident that the decline in UWA’s ranking internationally has followed the retirement of the previous VC who not only talked the talk but also walked the walk when it came to the ‘student experience’. He genuinely believed that this was central to any great institution and so UWA was! Sadly this commitment is no longer there at the top.

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