By Charles Fedor
Now that the collective fever dream (and borderline ecological disaster in terms of printing) of the Guild Election has receded into oblivion, let’s turn back to the continued assault on our education by the University. You would be forgiven in thinking that the matter has been settled, however in fact it is very much still rolling. After the Vice-Chancellor’s non-answers during the occupation of the Chancellery and after the Director of Campus Management’s suggested approach of emailing specific questions through failed to produce answers, the University went to ground. This suffocation of information by the University has culminated in both the NTEU and Pelican filing separate Freedom of Information requests to legally compel the University to communicate its data to its community. It seems that it is not just current students and staff that are furious with the University, but also the UWA alumni community. This piece will reveal Professor Chakma’s comments at the recent Convocation meeting, and the fact that the University is now in a legal battle over the restructure. Despite the Vice-Chancellor’s best efforts, it seems the war continues.
Reports: Through Thick and Spin
On the 17th of September, UWA Convocation met online via ‘webinar’ for its Spring Ordinary Meeting. In an attempt to gauge Senate members’ positions after a number of different avenues had been pursued, Pelican had submitted a question to Convocation asking “What will be the Convocation Senate representatives’ position on the social science restructure?”.
The Vice-Chancellor and Guild President were present at the meeting to answer questions. Eleven of these were submitted by concerned Alumni demanding an explanation of restructures by University management. Early parts of the meeting involved the Vice-Chancellor and Guild President discussing various topics, including the replacement of a lost medallion, and the Guild’s addition of a hot water tap and after-hours microwaves at the Barry J Marshall Library.
Numbers with the VC
The Guild President did not answer or provide comment on the restructure from a student’s perspective, instead leaving these questions to the Vice-Chancellor. It took five questions to get to a question on the restructure. The Vice-Chancellor received a Dorothy Dixer that in his own words “certainly aligns with my view”. The submitter of this question was Dr Brett Davies, a member of Senate himself. Yet, despite the question being on notice and being written by the Vice-Chancellor’s peer, his answer emphasised existing holes in the administration’s arguments. Despite UWAASA’s investigation into UWA’s finances (republished by Pelican), a number of sources had warned us that the infamous ‘$70 million deficit’ figure was even stranger than first believed. The Vice-Chancellor offered to break down this magic figure and may have accidentally confirmed suspicions of creative accounting. His comments on the deficit included:
- “To be more specific, we spend $50 million more on an ongoing basis relative to our income”
- “We are not investing $20 million on maintaining our physical infrastructure”
As the Vice-Chancellor asserted, “that adds up to $70 million”. Yes, it certainly does; however, accounting doesn’t work on providing deficits via ‘aspiration’. I wish I could buy a pair of Doc Martens every day, but I would not present my net income to the tax office as the difference between what I earn and what I wish I spent on Doc Martens. That isn’t how accounting works and in fact explains why no auditor or accountant can verify any of these claims. This is because accounting doesn’t work with dreams and wishes, but real income and expenses. Without the data behind the restructures actually being made publicly available, comments like the Vice-Chancellor’s here only serve to further confuse and disappoint.
Professor Chakma Fact-Checked
After this, Convocation decided to group most of the questions in relation to the restructure together and allow Professor Chakma to answer eleven questions en masse in thirteen minutes. He didn’t answer them exhaustively, but he did make a number of bold and potentially contradictory claims that Pelican has provided a quick fact-check on.
- First Claim: Despite the pleadings by Professor Chakma that the University is in a financial crisis, his report noted that student enrolments had grown 9% and that “we have turned a corner”.
- Second Claim: Asked questions about the ‘teaching focused’ positions that are in both proposals for the School of Social Sciences (and in the Molecular Sciences Proposal too), Professor Chakma promised that “There is absolutely, absolutely, no intention to downgrade research activities at this university”. The Vice-Chancellor emphasised that “teaching focused” does not mean “teaching only”, and only signals a change in research-to-teaching ratios. We will note here that under the proposals, the academic staff of whole disciplines would become teaching focused, significantly reducing their research time from, according to the Vice-Chancellor, 60% of their time to 30%; many academics have noted this will unavoidably reduce research quality, as well as total research output with proposed job cuts. In addition, the Vice-Chancellor made a claim that “You cannot call yourself a professor if you do not teach”. That is an interesting position to take, Professor Chakma.
- Third Claim: That the cuts were necessary because UWA research and teaching appointed academics have been working on a 30/60/10 (teaching, research, service) ratio which is lower than most universities’ 40/40/20 system. However, sources from within the School have reported that the number is actually 45/45/10 in the School of Social Sciences.
- Fourth Claim: “If staff could volunteer in response to budget cuts [in reference to increasing teaching time] … there would be no need for these changes”. No staff were given this option before or after the restructure was announced.
- Fifth Claim: “It is absolutely not true that one particular discipline was singled out”. No, not just one, but it is unlikely that that is any sort of consolation for Anthropology and Sociology, and Computational Chemistry.
Avenues to fact-check these claims through questioning were unavailable; alumni members were not able to comment either verbally or in written form to the claims of the Vice-Chancellor, and follow-up emails were not responded to. In a revealing admission, the Vice-Chancellor noted that the University has now been taken to the Fair Work Commission with allegations of violations of the enterprise bargaining agreement and unfair dismissal. To avoid later questioning on this, the Vice-Chancellor claimed that “I do not wish to risk prejudging the outcome of Fair Work”.
This claim does not square with the fact that despite being “almost halfway through” the University-wide restructure, the Vice-Chancellor also made audacious new promises in this meeting including investing $80 million into the university and that “we are looking at selecting projects to invest in” right now. It seems premature for the University to start a spending bonanza while they are under current litigation. Of course, we can’t solely blame the Vice-Chancellor for a (still uncertain) deficit and response to it that has been years in the making. He, too, emphasised his sympathy with UWA community opposition to the change process. In fact, he stated that “I appreciate that many of our colleagues and community members will not understand the process. If I were not playing the role I am playing, I would have no interest in the process. I’m not a process person.”
In closing remarks, the Vice-Chancellor said that the proposal “doesn’t necessarily bring satisfactory outcomes to everyone, but it is what it is”. This statement upset a number of Alumni who were present. Convocation’s job (according to its Warden) is to “Encourage good governance at the university”. Rather than achieving this, it seems this iteration of Convocation may have instead provided a platform for the Vice-Chancellor to re-state previous positions unchallenged.
Editor’s Note: Another student protest against the restructures has reportedly been organised for 5 p.m. this afternoon (18/10).