Walking the Plank in Western Australia

It is now well known that the Vice Chancellor at the University of Western Australia chose to use his 2015 Christmas address to staff to announce that 300 of them would lose their jobs in 2016. Since then Academic staff and Professional Staff alike have been subjected to over 6 months uncertainty and many academics and all professional staff still have no idea what their future will be.

To justify this massive reduction in staff, UWA claims to have an “underlying deficit” and report that they need to eliminate jobs and expertise in order to build funds to pursue strategic initiatives. So, the university wants to save money and improve its bottom line. Even if we accept that premise (and many don’t accept that universities should act as businesses) surely a whole of institution approach to identify the strategic priorities that the University wants to keep and build upon, and what it now must abandon in order to save money, would be the way to approach it.

Instead what we have is a process whereby each Faculty develops a “methodology” to evaluate the worth of their individual academic staff. These processes are almost always arbitrary: e.g., a methodology may contain a research ranking, teaching evaluation scores, and then arbitrary “values” on a numerical scale for leadership and collegiality assigned by a senior manager. Add them all up, see who is below a line determined by the Faculty, and then identify those people for redundancy. Magically Lecturer A is rated a 2 on collegiality and falls below the line but Lecturer B is rated a 3 and lies safe above the line. Almost all the methodologies preference research over teaching and service.

The criteria are retrospectively applied performance criteria that are now identifying academics for redundancy whose performance, over the period being assessed, has previously been rated as satisfactory or better.

Its too early to tell what the final outcome will be but here is what we have observed makes you more likely to be on the list

  • If you carry a high teaching load
  • If you carry a high service load
  • If family responsibilities have impacted on your ability to publish
  • if you don’t publish predominantly in A* journals irrespective of whether you have a high publication rate in journals suitable to your discipline

In some disciplines, especially those who carry a high “service teaching” load, over half the staff who teach have been targeted for redundancy. One wonders how second semester teaching is going to be done once everyone is gone. A cynic would suggest it will almost undoubtedly be achieved with a rapid escalation in casual employment. In addition there will now be many HDR Students whose supervisors are no longer employed at the institution at which they themselves are enrolled. As yet UWA has not released any information on how they intend to manage workload, unit offerings and student supervision when 100 academics are gone.

It is pertinent to remember the legal definition of redundancy as it applies in the Fair Work Act that describes a genuine redundancy to be where the person’s employer “no longer requires the job to be performed by anyone because of changes in the operational requirements of the employer’s enterprise”. It’s difficult to see how a process that identifies people by performance and leaves their work still to be done can ever be justified as a genuine redundancy. That question of whether the redundancies are genuine at UWA is yet to be resolved.

There is understandably a climate of fear developing at UWA. No-one knows who is safe, no-one knows who they may be targeted by and why. We have seen staff refuse to take time off for a family bereavement for fear of missing an important meeting. We’ve seen others outrageously bullied and too frightened to complain. Disturbingly we have seen several Union members who previously lodged bullying complaints fall on the wrong side of the “redundancy line”.

The now all too familiar redundancy rounds that happen in waves across the campuses of Australia’s universities serve more than one purpose. They may or may not reduce expenditure in the long term (but never in the short term given the associated costs). They may also allow the university to “re-focus on its strategic priorities”, but what they always do is create fear and undermine academic freedom. There is a reason why tenure was always seen as a fundamental pillar of academic freedom, and why academic freedom is important to a free and democratic society.

Add to this the increasingly intrusive attempts by university managements to protect their “brand” by imposing limitations on the capacity of staff to speak out, and its easy to conclude that a fundamental characteristic of the public university has been killed off by managers who no longer appreciate that they have temporary custody of important societal institutions.

There is a crisis of public universities in this country and it’s not about funding, it’s about what we want our universities to be – do we want them to be “$1b innovation businesses” as UWA now describes itself, where staff have no job security and where academic freedom is fundamentally diminished, or do we want them to be more than the commercial degree factories they seem to aspire to be?

Gabe Gooding

NTEU WA Division Secretary

The views and opinions expressed above are personal and belong solely to the author.