Tobias Langtry

 

Management at the University of Western Australia (UWA) has proposed a restructure of Student Life, a department responsible for a host of student services (including counselling, psychological support, and scholarships).

 

Under the proposal, 60 positions would be made redundant while 37 new positions would be created. There would be a net loss of 23 jobs, with some jobs being replaced by positions at a lower appointment level within the new job structure.

 

The Health Promotion Unit is to be cut entirely. This Health Promotion Unit is responsible for providing programs that seek to proactively protect the health and wellbeing of students at the University. They have run award winning programs such as Fit For Study and have played a key part in tackling issues important to students, such as sexual assault on campus, and drug and alcohol abuse. 

 

Students can support staff by signing this petition

 

What Has Management Said?

 

Management has presented these proposed cuts as financially necessary, echoing their justifications for cuts made to the Social Sciences and Molecular Sciences in 2021. UWA management have claimed that there will be no adverse impact on ‘learning or teaching,’ as potential savings would be invested into digital enhancements and student spaces.

 

As an example, the proposal suggests that front-of-house staff would be cut and replaced by kiosk machines that would answer basic questions and provide services such as printing student ID cards. Student Guild President, Geemal Jayawickrama, was sceptical that these machines could effectively replace staff members, especially since thousands of students would be relying on the kiosks. 

 

Dr Sanna Peden, UWA Branch President of the National Tertiary Education Union also expressed her scepticism: “The management line is that the proposed changes ‘will not impact on learning or teaching.’ It’s hard to see how that could possibly be true: UWA staff don’t work in silos, and ‘teaching and learning’ don’t exist only within the four walls of a lecture theatre.”

 

How Could This Impact Staff and Students?

 

Student Life is already understaffed, with both staff and Student Guild Council members lamenting the long backlog resulting from asking too few employees to do too much. Any job cuts will likely only worsen this situation, increasing the pressure on surviving employees. The proposed job cuts therefore present a direct threat to the quality of student services.

 

The waiting list for psychological services is already six weeks, and any job cuts will mean students needing immediate help will have to wait even longer. The Proposal For Change (the document describing the proposed restructure) predicts that by 2026 there will be a 15% growth in the student population. How can Student Life cope being asked to serve thousands more students while suffering major job cuts?

 

A staff member I spoke to said the proposed job cuts would significantly affect their team, and this would “definitely correlate with the impact [they] can make … there’s not really a digital enhancement that can replace what [they] do.” This staff member told me “there is a message that there will be no impact on teaching and learning…” but all of the student services provided by Student Life “support students and there will be students who will not continue their study and be worse off because of these changes.” 

 

One staff member was concerned that “the people who are most vulnerable are least able to provide their feedback,” because providing feedback can affect an employee’s future job opportunities. This sentiment was echoed by Dr Sanna Peden, who said some staff had avoided speaking out for fear of professional repercussions.

 

Union in Support of Staff

 

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) is the union representing staff at UWA. The NTEU UWA Branch President, Dr Sanna Peden, expressed her shock “at the scale of the cuts in already overworked areas. … Unsurprisingly people in those positions feel devalued and disrespected by the proposal.” 

 

Sanna stressed the value of the work Student Life employees do. “Anyone who has needed course advice, looked for mentors, applied for special consideration, or sought counselling, knows how essential those services areand how understaffed those areas already are. There are serious concerns that the cuts will lead to ballooning workloads for staff and longer waiting periods for students.”

 

“Staff in Student Life are feeling vulnerable and angrybut we are also moved by the support and solidarity students have given us. Staff working conditions are student learning conditions, and we’re all in this together.”

 

Student Guild Condemns the Proposal

 

In their Guild Council meeting on the 28th of June, student-elected representatives of the Student Guild passed a motion condemning the proposed restructure of Student Life. The Guild Council made a commitment to work with the NTEU to protect the best interests of staff and students.

 

All of the council members who spoke about the issue were strongly concerned about the proposed restructure. Melani De Alwis described the proposal as a “slap to the face of staff and students.” Robert Whitehurst, The Guild’s Chair of Council, said that the proposal would hurt student services by undermining job security; “How can you focus on your work if you’re scared of losing your job?”

 

Kaelin Abrahams, The Guild’s Wellbeing Officer, strongly opposed the restructure, fearing it would create a “terrifying, dystopian future.” Kaelin worried about the potential consequences of poor student services, particularly for students with complex needs, like sexual assault victims. Both Kaelin and India Creed opposed any cuts made to the Health Promotion Unit.

 

What Do Staff Have to Say?

 

Some brave staff members affected by these cuts have made anonymous statements explaining the impact of the proposal in their own words:

 

Anonymous staff member #1

 

“The past three years have been incredibly punishing for student-facing services; in many ways, we experienced the pandemic twicethrough our own eyes, and through the struggles of students. We did so while essential positions have sat unfilled across the portfolio, despite a significant increase in enrolments/demand for services. Already under-resourced, we’re now being asked to take on more work with fewer people until some mystical systems arrive to ‘increase our efficiency’ in approx. six to eight months. An unclear plan with unclear benefits for staff or students.

“We’ve heard time and again from the VC and DVCE David Sadler that ‘no one is to blame,’ for the financial position the University is in, that UWA has the highest ratio of students to professional staff out of all Perth Universities and cuts must be made.

“Firstly, there are people to blame for the financial position the University is in, and it’s not me or my colleagues. That argument should have been buried when all staff agreed to a pay cut, we’ve done our bit and they STILL don’t have a clear plan for change.

“Secondly, we might have a high ratio of professional staff to students, but what about what we do for the students? We aren’t just faces or numbers, we are counsellors, translators, career advisors, parent wranglers, IT support, Google Maps, fire safety officers, the volunteers at open day and graduations… We aren’t just chat bots who spend all day emailing, and to ask us to do more than we already have done over the last three years without a CLEAR PLAN is insulting.”

 

Anonymous staff member #2

 

“The reduction of on-the-ground project officers in areas such as Student Equity puts further pressure on current staff and limits the ‘student’s sense of belonging’. I am worried by the ceasing of certain roles in Student Wellbeing and Engagement, such as the Senior Psychologist and the Health Promotion Unit. If one of the primary strategic goals is ‘enhancing the student experience,’ how can support for mental health and wellbeing be limited and displaced?”

 

Anonymous Staff Member #3

 

“Many of the proposed changes would be hugely detrimental to the delivery of services to students and exacerbate a situation where many sections are already understaffed. It is also clear that the proposed changes are primarily intended to cut costs rather than to enhance the student experience, which will be eroded rather than enhanced if the proposed changes are implemented.

“If UWA is to successfully strengthen pathways to attract and retain diversified student cohorts, staffing of both outreach and support services will need to expand accordingly; students’ success and wellbeing should be the University’s highest goal and overwhelming priority but the current proposal significantly fails to address the ideals it sets out as its purported vision.”

 

Students can support staff by signing this petition

 

Students who rely on the support provided by Student Life should know that they can also seek support from the Student Guild and the Living Room. These services are not affected by the job cuts and they can direct you to other support services where needed:

https://www.uwastudentguild.com/student-assist

https://www.uwa.edu.au/students/Support-services/The-Living-Room

By Pelican Magazine

Pelican is one of the oldest student publications in Australia and the only independent paper at UWA. If you enjoy writing, then Pelican is the place for you! We print six themed issues a year, and run a stream of online content.

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