Sydney University Academics Speak Out


For more than a week, the University of Sydney has been in the grip of an unprecedented crisis. On 23 November, the Vice-Chancellor, Michael Spence, made an all-staff announcement by video-message, his standard mode of communication (the transcript is available here).

Fee income, Dr Spence told the university, was less than management had projected. "If we are to meet our financial targets in 2012," he said, "we need to take some stringent measures". Staff who are not ‘pulling their weight’ can no longer be ‘carried’. According to estimates based on the university’s desired savings, up to 150 academic and 190 general staff jobs are under threat.

In his video, Dr Spence announced that "academics who do not contribute significantly either to … research or teaching" would be subject to corrective measures, including redundancy. The details are specified in the university’s Draft Change Proposal document (DCP).

Given that the proposal is clearly non-negotiable in all essential respects, the term "Draft" is highly misleading: the university has provided for two brief staff "consultation" periods between now and mid-February, when the final decisions will be made. For measures as unanticipated, sweeping, summary and, to many, devastating as these, talk of "consultation" is no more than an insult.

Whatever it is called, the DCP reveals a far more worrying situation for academics than Dr Spence acknowledged on the video. Rather than research and teaching constituting the measure by which staff not "pulling their weight" are to be identified, the DCP makes it clear that academics will be assessed purely on the basis of their publications ("outputs") between 1 January 2009 and 4 November 2011. The only way a staff member can avoid being "considered for possible redundancy or alternative arrangements" is by having four publications to their name in that period.

Academics with three or fewer publications will be eligible for punitive action — being reassigned to teaching-only roles (professionally disastrous in a research university), offered pre-retirement contracts or voluntary redundancies, or, as a last resort, being sacked. The DCP recommends "reducing the number of continuing and fixed-term academic staff across the University by 7.5 per cent". The savings in salary costs will be used on building work and computer infrastructure.

The Vice-Chancellor’s announcement has caused deep consternation. Academics’ official duties are determined by the current Enterprise Agreement, signed in 2009 after significant management obstructionism. According to the EA, most academics are meant to spend 20 per cent of their time on administrative duties and 40 per cent each on teaching and research.

These figures are the object of widespread derision. Like their general staff colleagues, academics are, almost without exception, extremely dedicated and hardworking. They are also uniformly beleaguered, with teaching alone occupying the vast bulk of available time. This means that the criteria the university has announced — three or fewer "outputs" and you’re in trouble  — make academics’ job security dependent on a crass quantification of their performance in only two-fifths of their official duties, and in a much smaller proportion of their realistically achievable ones.

Good research takes time. Leave aside the fundamental question of whether "research performance" can be measured by counting publications: the "output fundamentalism" of the DCP involves an even greater inequity. The "less than four" test is a much higher bar than any previously advertised — almost twice as demanding, in fact, as the "Minimum Levels of Research Performance" released only in October by the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, which claimed to reflect ‘university-wide norms’.

Staff at the university are still trying to come to terms with what has just happened. At union meetings, at general "Town Hall" meetings called to discuss the changes, and in the corridor, staff are expressing their incredulity, distress and outrage.

Why are staff and students paying for management’s budgetary failures? How can the Vice-Chancellor announce punitive action on the basis of an absurdly harsh, retrospective performance test that applies to only 40 per cent of an academic’s overall duties? How could it be more important to invest in IT and buildings than in the staff who teach in them? How will the reduced academic workforce cope with the increased teaching load caused by redundancies?

How could the quality of education and research at the university fail to be damaged? Why is Sydney the only institution where management has got the budget so disastrously wrong? Why are we talking about 150 redundancies when UNSW has just announced 100 extra appointments? What guarantee can be given to staff members not targeted by this proposal that they will not be subject to some new and equally arbitrary change to the rules whenever management next decides that "stringent measures" are needed?

Neither Dr Spence nor anyone else has given satisfactory answers to these questions. In the video sent to staff, the VC suggested that the DCP was no more than what staff themselves had asked for, and were even expecting:

"But to progress further, we must, amongst other things, invest in our buildings and ICT systems: their current state is of real concern to everyone… and there is an urgent need for new facilities to better support you and your work. All of this will come as no surprise. You raised these issues in our Green Paper consultations and you continue to do so. You deserve better."

The VC is right: staff "deserve better". But what they deserve is not just new buildings or better IT systems, but the security of knowing that their job description will not be retrospectively rewritten. No one wants better facilities for a job they no longer have. What staff deserve is a guarantee that they will be treated fairly, and not made the objects of unprovoked employer militancy.

Dr Spence’s hypocrisy continued in an email circulated to staff on 1 December, the day after the best attended National Tertiary Education Union meeting held at the institution in living memory, with more than 500 staff present. Dr Spence noted that:

"The NTEU is also calling for various forms of protest action. While I would not want to prevent any staff member from expressing their opinion I would ask that this be done in a collegial manner…"

The irony was lost on no one: The VC’s proposal violates the most elementary standards of equity, decency and procedural fairness — and he reads us lectures on collegiality.

The VC is not, of course, solely responsible: the University Senate and the "Senior Executive Group" — a formation which has increasingly assumed control over key university decisions — have agreed to the strategy, apparently despite the resistance of a few Deans. The DCP is evidently a joint effort. In its arrogance, its incoherence, and its fundamental hostility to the core values that should animate a university community, it stands as one of the most representative achievements to date of the distinctive managerial culture of the corporate university.

At less exalted levels of the university hierarchy, there seems little evidence of any inclination to resist the DCP. With a handful of honourable exceptions, most mid-level managers seem largely to have failed to offer any resistance whatsoever to the plan when challenged on the grounds of its fundamental inequity. Without batting an eyelid, they have fallen into lock-step behind management’s demands and refused to call the scheme’s basis into question.

At most, there have been declarations of distress and assurances to desperate staff of procedural support, within the terms of the DCP, in identifying extenuating circumstances which might avert redundancy. They have specifically excluded taking a principled stand in favour of equity or reasonable treatment. This is predictable enough, given that the logic of university appointments precisely favours those who aim to acquire institutional power rather than challenge it, and who have demonstrated preparedness to automatically implement their superiors’ decisions, no matter what.

Many people think that what the university is proposing is illegal and will never make it through the courts. As Dr Spence now clearly recognises, he has a fight on his hands.

Management does, however, have one advantage. Universities are aspirational workplaces, with a seamless continuity between junior academic and senior management roles. If you keep on getting promoted, you can start as a humble lecturer and end up a Head of School, Dean, Provost or VC. This role-fluidity makes it easy to forget just how little community of interest there actually now is between the academics who mainly teach and research and the managers who manage.

Along with nostalgia for a less brutal age of genuine collegiality, role-fluidity militates against an accurate appraisal of the structural contradictions between staff and management. As a result, rank and file staff want to believe that managers are on the same side as they are, and motivated by their best interests. These are dangerous illusions, the baselessness of which is rarely exposed as unambiguously as at Sydney today.

Tertiary education plays a central role in society. Universities are vital milieus for the fashioning of a distinct generational consciousness among students. For those young people able to attend them, they often provide the context of their first sustained adult encounter with a State instrumentality. It is at university that subtle expectations are formed about the character of institutional behaviour and the norms of authority, respect and fair treatment that govern relations in the community.

Management’s current summary assault on staff will not just hurt students by making their classes more crowded and their lecturers, librarians, and admin and lab assistants more overworked. It will hurt them by poisoning the environment in which they acquire fundamental habits of mind. The structural bullying, ugly authoritarianism and arbitrary and summary exercise of power of which staff are currently objects will create an atmosphere that cannot but adversely affect the university’s entire ecology. The consequences will be subtle and serious, and they must be resisted.

Given its content, this article obviously reflects the authors’ personal opinions and not those of the University of Sydney.

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.