By Charles Fedor

 

Pleas for humanity and threats of people being on the street met with silence.

It sounds like a dystopian film. But those are some of the responses coming out of the School of Molecular Science’s “Town Hall” for student and staff. As part of Pelican’s continued commitment to providing coverage of the University restructure, this piece will provide an update on Dr. Chakma’s self-declared “war”. In addition it will be summarising the “town halls” and critiquing claims made by University management. Pelican also has a transcript of both the student and staff “town hall”, so if you would like further reading, I would recommend checking those out.

 

Updates on the Western Front

After the occupation of the Chancellery and the recent Guild election, the University has fallen silent. University employees have discouraged reporting on the restructure, and there has been an unprecedented information blockade. Despite this, Pelican can provide a few updates with regards to the restructure of the University courtesy of our Vice-Chancellor during the Convocation Spring Meeting:

  • The University at the time of the Convocation was stuck in a legal battle over the Social Science restructure. The Fair Work Commission was expected to hear the matter in coming weeks. Pelican was approved as a court reporter for the purpose of informing the UWA community on its outcome.
  • The University will be spending $80 million to upgrade its infrastructure. They have already started to consider projects despite being under litigation.
  • About $20 million of the $70 million dollar restructure is based on what the Vice-Chancellor wishes he could spend on infrastructure.
  • On a separate note, the Vice-Chancellor announced via email that he will delay the restructure of the remaining six schools until next year.

 

“Town Hall” Summaries

To continue the infamous reputation of the Social Science “town hall”, academics and students were informed of the meeting the day before, forcing students to reschedule experiments and staff to move meetings. In the lead up to these “town halls” students were not provided a copy of the original proposal. During these meetings, staff were not given the amended proposal until after the meeting. Students were denied the ability to view the amended proposal and staff were told by Professor Martha Ludwig to ask their supervisor if they had been fired. Pelican has reported on the amended proposal to release staff from this position and to allow students to engage effectively. These actions by Professor Ludwig prevented effective engagement by staff and students during their respective meetings. Professor Ludwig read staff the proposal but did not do so for students. During both “town halls” Professor Ludwig and University management struggled to answer a number of questions by staff and students.

 

Staff Town Hall Summary: “I’m not alright”

Genuine engagement and discussion were substituted with reading the proposal to staff and providing evasive answers. A number of questions that were not answered included:

 

Question One: If a level E academic was made redundant how will that affect the level of C/Ds made redundant?

Answer (Professor Ludwig): “We would have to think about workforce capacity”

Explainer: This is in relation to the university’s concerns of ‘financial sustainability’. Specifically, there is a significant difference between the pay of a Level C/D academic and a level E academic. According to public pay scales a senior level C academic is paid close to $50,000 less than a level E academic. In that case, a level E redundancy could, in effect, fulfill the required budget cut backs mandated by the Vice-Chancellor faster, and reduce the number of forced redundancies in the school. Pelican is not suggesting this is optimal, positive, or effective.

Analysis: There is a lot to dissect. First, feedback had been submitted that specifically requested that Level Es be given the opportunity for voluntary redundancy. The proposal as it is now did not envision the loss of a level E academic. It indicated that the University’s actions have made academics consider leaving prematurely or at least be provided exit options. Level Es are leaders within their school, providing mentorship, research, and teaching support to their colleagues and students. A loss of a Level E academic would be a significant blow to the activities of the school be it in research, teaching, or strategic viability. The second thing to note is that applications for voluntary redundancy can be rejected by the school if they wish to keep staff for operational reasons. Regardless, this is a basic financial question which could not be answered by Professor Ludwig.

 

Question Two: What’s the justification for removing Computational Chemistry? I didn’t see it in any document?

Answer (Professor Ludwig): As I said, the decision for change is multi-dimensional. Financial sustainability, student enrolment growth and retention. Other factors were involved. All of the feedback was considered and acknowledged.

Explainer: Though the University has played a semantic game of talking in terms of “reintroducing a single chemical major” this would in effect remove computational chemistry and synthetic chemistry as majors and collapse them into a general “chemistry” major. What is really telling in this answer is that Professor Ludwig has not provided a specific justification for the abolishment. This is in line with Professor Amanda Davies’ lack of justification on Anthropology and Sociology. It should also be noted that citations in the computational chemistry major were the highest in the school. It should be a significant concern that the University cannot articulate a justification for its actions.

 

Other issues that came out of the staff “town hall” included:

  • The redundancy timeline bleeds into November when exams are being marked. Professor Ludwig acknowledged “there is never a good time, I realise”. I suppose she is right, but firing staff just before Christmas with specious logic and justification seems particularly cruel.
  • The single chemistry major will be for 2022 which puts pressure on a severely strained and savagely cut workforce. This group are expected to teach and design a whole new major and continue supporting students in abolished majors at the same time as losing 43 per cent of their staff.
  • Professor Ludwig stated that there were “not many suggestions…on what a sustainable workplace profile would look like”. The reason why suggestions were not provided is because data has not been released (financial or otherwise), staff and students have not been invited into genuine consultations, and generally speaking, staff were not encouraged to come up with a counter-proposal.
  • Overall, it seems that Professor Ludwig may have created an impression of genuine consideration. But limited changes to the proposal and evasive answers seem to indicate otherwise. This perhaps is to sandbag attempts by staff in the future to challenge the proposal at the Fairwork Commission.

At the end of the session, an exchange was overheard between two academics that seems to encapsulate the morale of the school:

 

Staff 1: “Are you alright?”

Staff 2: “No, I’m not. I’m not alright.”

 

Student Town Hall Summary (how are we included in this process?)

The student town hall was led by Professor Ludwig, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Tim Colmer, Associate Director of Human Resources and Business Partnering Christina Lee, and the late attendance of Dean of the Graduate Research School Professor Imelda Whelehan. In contrast to the staff meeting, the HDR “town hall” was completely devoid of details on the amended proposal. Emotions ran high amongst the students and that was not helped by the management team refusing to reveal basic details including the number of staff to be cut. The defence provided by Professor Ludwig was “some staff were not able to attend the town hall” which they called the day before.

Remember, students were not provided a copy of the proposal for change through official channels or as a matter of courtesy by the University. Instead, students had to rely on unofficial sources to glean information. The town hall was dominated by a central and basic question:

 

Does the Vice-Chancellor’s guarantee of ‘continuing their studies’ actually mean anything?

 

Context: This is a question that has come up in the social science restructure, and was a common defence by University management. The Vice-Chancellor has ostensibly promised that all currently enrolled students will be allowed to continue their studies. Students have already noted that this promise seems unrealistic given the sheer savagery and speed of the cuts. The University management throughout the meeting continued to repeat this phrase despite rising doubts by students. Students pressed management on the following key questions around this “guarantee”:

  • Continuing studies is entirely different from not being impacted. HDR (Higher Degree Research) students rely on stipends from soon to be cut academics, and external funding contracts that are about to be compromised. These stipends are crucial to paying for living expenses including rent etc. If this funding stops, will the University step in to prevent students from falling “below the poverty line”?
  • Does the University have a contingency plan or budget set aside for HDR students to cushion them from financial distress and loss of project funding?
  • Will the University guarantee that HDR students who lose their supervisor are provided emergency support to prevent them from becoming homeless?

The Graduate Research School Dean Professor Whelehan gave answers that students characterised as “evasive”, at points stating:

  • It is a case-by-case basis. This means the guarantee does not actually apply to everyone if it is case by case.
  • “We want to meet that guarantee”. Wishing to meet a guarantee is not the same as providing a guarantee. I wish I could tap dance, it hardly means that I am able to tap dance
  • The question was “above her pay grade” and that “she can’t make a general statement” as “I do not have the authority!” — that is despite the Deputy Vice-Chancellor sitting in the room.
  • There is no contingency plan to support students as of writing.
  • Professor Whelehan also attempted to spin these questions as something “extra” which is comprehensively not true. Students were asking if the University would meet the gap in funding caused by the university’s restructure.

Note, according to some externally funded students, they have already received documents that say they will lose their stipend. Students were left aghast at this lack of basic assurances by the University with a student demanding “why didn’t someone with the authority come down here?” The Vice-Chancellor’s promise has not passed any metric of assurance, nothing of substance has materialised to substantiate the Vice-Chancellor’s claim.

Due process issues were also raised, especially around the engagement with Academic Board. The Academic Board is required to provide advice on significant academic decisions including the recission of two majors. Professor Ludwig was “not sure” if Academic Board were given the opportunity to provide feedback, side-stepping the peak academic body of the University. In addition, we should also note that the Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor (SDVC) Professor Simon Biggs had, in collaboration with Professor Ludwig, “collected [the] feedback, [and] wrote the decision”. The SDVC is leaving for another university in less than four months. This means he would have less attachment to UWA as he become the Vice-Chancellor of a potential competitor.

Other due process concerns were summed up by the students simply as:

“There was a consultation process for a proposal we have not officially seen. The consultation has closed, feedback was collected and we’re not being presented still with the initial proposal, we’re not being presented with anything that came up in feedback. I’m going to assume we won’t see the final proposal either. How, therefore, are we included in this process? Is anything that is coming out of this meeting being relayed to the Senate by anyone or the VC?”.

Dr Ludwig responded “you are included in the process in the sense we talked on August 19th about the impact on you.”. Hardly a reassuring or genuine consultation.

Requests for what feedback was received were made by Education Action Network Coordinator Nicole McEwen who was challenged by Professor Colmer as to why she was even here as “I don’t think you’re a member of this school”. A question on “why did you target computational chemistry?” was not answered with Professor Colmer instead noting “multiple dimensions were considered”.

The University has ignored its’ students, demonstrated a lack of research, and the reassurance from the Vice-Chancellor presents itself as an exercise in rhetoric rather than a meaningful and genuine promise. Students planned a protest on October 18th to pressure the Senate to genuinely listen to the students that they have so far ignored. I would usually end an article with some glib observation, however I thought I would simply re-print an abridged observation stated during the meeting by one of the many HDR students affected.

 

“I think it’s pretty telling you can look around this room and see a lot of people looking at their shoes, their desks. It’s because no one has been provided with any actual information today. I think it’s pretty telling that a lot of people in this room know that the bulk of this meeting is like a joke. No one is receiving any real information, no one is receiving guarantees from the university that they will be supported, no one’s receiving any actual support. They are being dictated in vague terms that their supervisor may lose their job and they have no recourse to provide feedback. That is pretty telling of how the school is being run. I would say…not the sort of school I want to be a part of…. It’s pretty rare that a school can lose its momentum and its ability to move really gifted and talented people into research so catastrophically in six months. This is the place I’ve been part of for the best part of a decade. I’ve been an undergraduate. I’ve been a postgraduate. I’ve been involved with the Guild, I’ve sat on Senate. I am saddened as to what this school has become, we were so much better than this.”

 

This piece can only be provided to you through the hard work and courage of a number of sources across the university community If you see or know something that needs to be said please contact me via phone at 0437 496 648. Your anonymity is guaranteed.

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