Curtin Uni Spills Academic Jobs


This week academic staff at Curtin University are contemplating what it will mean to reapply for their jobs. Staff are being invited to apply on merit for new positions in the university in advance of a restructure which will “reshape” the academic workforce. The Board of the University will today vote on the ominously titled “Change Proposal relating to the Reshaping of our Academic Workforce”.

The plan “potentially plunges the entire academic workforce into redundancy”, says Gabe Gooding from the NTEU. “Such an action is unprecedented in Australia. At no other university is the management attempting to force academics to apply for their own job.”

Acting Vice-Chancellor Colin Stirling says that the proposal is nothing for staff to worry about. It will merely “provide existing staff the first opportunity to express an interest in new Teaching Focussed and new Research Academic positions being created in those schools”.

The first phase of the “reshaping” will roll out in four schools, Accounting, Speech Pathology and Psychology, Science and Built Environment, and according to Stirling it will not breach any industrial agreements. The NTEU disagrees and is threatening to take the university to Fair Work Australia.

New Matilda spoke to several senior academic staff at Curtin who are deeply worried about the changes underway at Curtin and the pace at which they are being pushed through. They were concerned that speaking to the media would affect their re-employment prospects and have been quoted anonymously.

“We all know that the academic world is changing,” a Curtin professor told New Matilda.

“Higher education is a business and no different to any other business, certainly in the view of people who are running it. It’s a competitive world and we have to be agile. This is exactly the same thing that Ford and Holden workers are being told. We are no different to any other group of employees.” Staff are under huge pressure, says the professor. “We are  working our socks off. We feel we’re stretched to the limit and we’re told we’re not by management’s information systems.”

The “future workforce” at Curtin will “incorporate a new Teaching Focussed academic position together with existing Teaching and Research, and Research Academic positions”. Stirling describes the new teaching position as “an exciting career opportunity for specialist educators” and insists that all academic positions  “will be afforded equal esteem and career advancement opportunities”.

By 2017 the uni intends to take on over 400 new research-orientated academics as part of its 2030 Vision. Staff have been told that Curtin is looking for “iconic researchers” to lead the transformation into a research-intensive institution but many are worried that high-performing “rock star hires” will squeeze out existing staff. “Where is the money going to come from,” asks the professor. “The only answer is by getting rid of significant number of us who don’t fit the profile.” 

The introduction of teaching-only positions has been welcomed by some staff, a senior lecturer at Curtin told New Matilda. Many academics are fed up with the pressure of trying to balance teaching with increasing research output expectations. The trouble is, “these positions are supposed to be voluntary, and we fear that people will be forced into them”. 

This senior lecturer is not convinced by Stirling’s rhetoric, claiming that the process has been designed “to select staff to keep and to hire new staff that who meet the targets”.

The reshaping is “one of a number of strategic projects already underway”, says Stirling; it’s all part of a plan “to further enable and empower staff to contribute towards our vision for Curtin as an international leader in education and research”.

What does this mean? In 1987 the Western Australian Institute of Technology became Curtin University. It developed quickly during the 1990s and changed from being a predominantly undergraduate institution to one with an active higher research profile. (Read the university’s history here.)

Under Vice-Chancellor Jeanette Hacket the university has now adopted an ambitious strategic plan to become a research-intensive institution. It is seeking to improve its ERA rankings and boost its position on tables of higher education institutions such as the Times Higher Education Ranking. This higher profile may help the university attract more research funding and research students. In an extremely competitive global higher education market, it may also contribute to the sustainability of the Curtin University brand. Like all Australian universities, Curtin will have to deal with the impact of the government’s “efficiency dividend” but management insists that the changes are not a cost-cutting exercise, but a restructure.

The university has still not signed off on a controversial “expectations” policy, a document which maps out the performance expected of scholars at various steps on the academic career ladder.

New Matilda was told that a Level B lecturer, generally an entry level position for someone who has recently completed a PhD, will be expected to demonstrate as part of the expectations for research: national recognition in their field; an “established record of research outputs” in top journals; and “evidence of quality and impact of outputs”. A level C academic (senior lecturer) is expected to demonstrate, among other things, "evidence of an established national reputation and growing international profile."

Staff described the expectations to NM as “highly unrealistic”. One senior staff member said that “there is a real fear among people that this will lead to staff being demoted, with the resultant financial cost and public humiliation, or being shamed into resigning”.  Another said that staff were “not being supported to meet these targets”.

Staff are being strongly encouraged to publish research in A- and B-starred journals and they are being discouraged from publishing out of their primary research area, a move which runs against the trend to interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research. It may also undermine academic freedom, the professor told NM.

Greens Senator for WA Scott Ludlam is a Curtin graduate. He didn’t mince his words:

“Curtin University’s move to sack its entire academic staff and force them to scramble for a drastically slashed number of positions is outrageous.  This will not only undermine wages and conditions, it will gravely diminish Curtin’s capacity to operate as a university.”

New Matilda put questions to the Minister for Tertiary Education Craig Emerson about the Gillard Government’s commitment to higher education. The Minister’s spokesperson pointed to an increase in higher education funding under Labor.

“Funding for students to go to university has grown by 75 per cent since Labor came to government and real funding per student is projected to increase over the next four years.”

The minister’s spokesperson also insisted that the Gillard Government is as committed to higher education teaching and learning as it is to schools, noting a $36.8 billion investment over the next four financial years and grants for 38 research teams across Australia, and Office of Learning and Teaching (OLT) Fellowships for nine outstanding teachers.

On the changes underway at Curtin there was no comment: “This is an industrial matter that relates to a series of ongoing negotiations between the Uni and its staff. Claims in bargaining between the NTEU and Universities are matters for them.”

The Government may be  taking a hands-off approach but there are many similar industrial disputes underway on campuses across Australia. At Monash University, a dispute over pay and conditions has seen staff withhold student results.

Industrial action has been ongoing at Sydney University since 2011 in response to efforts to “reshape” the university’s workforce and to force redundancies.

There are plenty of soothing words emanating from the management of Curtin University. Colin Stirling writes in a note to staff: “Change and renewal present opportunities as well as challenges.  While we may encounter some difficulties as we progress, the outcome will be worthwhile for staff and the University as a whole.” Right now, academics at Curtin are far from convinced.

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