Sydney Uni's Self-Inflicted Wounds


Confusion has reigned in Australia’s tertiary sector since Senator Chris Evans’s claim in mid-November that universities are going "from strength to strength" in terms of their budget surpluses. This is a view emphatically not endorsed by the National Tertiary Education Union, Universities Australia and just about everyone else in the higher education sector.

Around the same time as Evans made these remarks, Sydney and Macquarie universities were embroiled in battles over job cuts — directly related to budgetary problems.

That said, the University of Sydney’s decision to make savings came as something of a shock to observers since it is one of the few institutions that has made a decent profit over recent years — notwithstanding over $100 million in losses as a result of the GFC.

Depending on whom you believe — the union, financial experts, university managers or academics — the University of Sydney made up to $141 million surplus in the last financial year. Yet the university’s vice chancellor, Michael Spence, announced in November that 150 academic and 190 casual jobs would be axed next year in order to save the university upwards of $63 million. The obvious question: why do they need job cuts in such profitable circumstances?

Professor Spence said the decision was reached because the university had "over-budgeted" in terms of student demand which, he argued, had fallen off because more domestic students had "deferred or lightened their load as our economy proved to be more robust than expected", and because "the international student market has been affected by a strong Australian dollar and uncertainty about government policy changes." While there is little doubt that the second reason is valid the first requires further explanation.

But do either of these explanations really stack up?

Apparently not, according to a senior academic source in the university. A large part of the university’s financial problems is linked to the creation of the Centre for Obesity, Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease, scheduled to open in 2013. The federal government promised $95 million dollars to the centre with the university allocating a hefty $385 million toward various infrastructure costs.

As noted on the centre’s website, the new building will be a "state-of the-art" facility that "will provide research and education spaces to support a diverse disciplinary mix spanning enabling sciences, biomedical sciences, bioinformatics and computational biology, clinical research and social and behavioural sciences". Few would deny the value of having such a centre and the contribution that it could make to the health and wellbeing of the Australian population. But can Sydney University afford it?

According to a senior academic source, the university’s de facto decision making body, the Senior Executive Group, met recently to discuss such matters and concluded that the university had bitten off more than it could chew. Many expressed the view that the federal government grant should be handed back, unless of course, the centre could generate funds from the private sector to offset its own fiscal obligations.

The same source also argued that the university has created additional problems for itself through the introduction of "Sydney Student", an on-line application system costing somewhere in the region of $50 million, and rising. The net effect of this has been to hand over responsibility for student admissions to a bureaucratic body that offers little scope for discretionary decision making once exercised by academics. The application of rigid thresholds for student entry has meant that students who might otherwise have negotiated more flexible entry arrangements now apply to other more flexible universities in terms of their entry requirements.

Meanwhile, as at so many other universities, managerial appetites for organisational upheaval remain undimmed.

Sydney has made dozens of appointments over recent years in social sciences, creating, in the process, a School of Social and Political Sciences (SSPS), part of the new Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. It aspires to world-leading status in such disciplines as Politics and Sociology, as measured on the metrics of the Excellence in Research Australia scheme favoured by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.

But not all the passengers on board this compendious new vessel are happy travellers. The University’s dedicated Centre for International Security Studies has been incorporated, willy-nilly, into the Department of Government and International Relations, prompting its well-regarded founding Director, Professor Alan Dupont, to leave for the rival University of New South Wales.

And an internal faculty review of the SSPS now threatens the future of Sydney’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies too. A healthy postgraduate intake, along with an international reputation for both high quality research and engagement with community groups not otherwise well represented at the University are not enough to save it, it seems, in the eyes of managers bent on building what the review calls "critical mass".

Union representatives, opposing the planned job cuts, are understood to be considering adding to their existing arguments by drawing attention to self-inflicted wounds from recent decisions. Given recent developments, the charge may be difficult for the University’s senior management to refute.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.