Staff Give Sydney Uni A Poor Grade

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The University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor and his leadership team are under renewed pressure to restore the confidence of their workforce after a major internal survey revealed growing dissatisfaction among employees in a range of key areas.

The survey of 2862 University of Sydney staff, available only to academics and internal staff and accessed by NM, shows low levels of satisfaction in regards to the performance of the university’s senior figures as well as in relation to career opportunities, workload allocation, and access to technology.

Most worryingly, it also shows that staff are even less content than they were one year earlier, when the first instalment of the survey was conducted. Of the 38 areas covered in the report’s summary, not one saw improvement on the results recorded in 2012.

Asked to rate their level of agreement with a series of statements about the university, just 19 per cent of those surveyed believed “change and innovation” were handled well by the university.

Just 26 per cent responded favourably to the statement: “the Senior Executive Group [The Vice-Chancellor, Deputy Vice-Chancellors, Deans and Directors] listen to other staff”.

National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) branch president Michael Thomson said the results had been influenced by two years of industrial tensions at the university. “They indicate that the university management has to do a lot of work to build up its standing with staff,” he said.

Questions in the survey related to career prospects and conditions — major issues of contention during enterprise negotiations at Sydney and on other campuses last year — also provided evidence of deep dissatisfaction. 

Only 36 per cent of respondents reported a favourable view of their “career opportunities” while just 40 per cent returned a positive view of their “workload”.

One staff member who has worked as both an academic and general staff member at the University of Sydney told NM that career insecurities are punishing staff and undermining the quality of the university.

“I was on a range of short, fixed-term contracts and casual-work contracts for 7.5 years, which does tend to create difficulties, in terms of insecurity about employment and income, and in terms of overall annual income,” the staff member said.

With a family and a mortgage, they claimed their work days would last between 12 and 14 hours. “The rate of hourly pay for teaching looks good, but I would say I worked four hours for every one that I got paid.”

The University of Sydney administration has so far been vague in its response to the findings, especially in regards to potential solutions.

“It is common in organisations that are going through change, or where working conditions are negotiated, to find dissatisfaction is higher for a period,” head of Media and PR, Kirsten Andrews, said in a statement.

Management-staff relations at the university have been shaky since 59 academic staff were made redundant and another 51 transferred to teaching-focused roles in 2012. The painful round of redundancies was followed in 2013 by protracted negotiations over a new enterprise agreement which resulted in five days of strike action.

In contrast to the poor numbers for higher-ups, the survey showed staff have an overwhelmingly positive view of their colleagues generally, as well as the supervision of their work.

In the past, senior figures at the university have used the large gap between these responses to argue that, because average workers have little direct contact with the executive group, they are easily influenced by negative caricatures of management, especially during industrial action.

Grant Wheeler, branch president of the other major union representing university staff, the CPSU, attributed the results instead to the tokenistic nature of consultations with employees. 

“I have been involved in many change processes at the university and far more often than not in my experience staff feel as though their input has been ignored in any real sense,” Wheeler said.

The results of the survey also raise questions about the university sector more broadly, especially given the $2.3 billion in cuts (introduced by Labor but now opposed by the party, along with the Greens) which may still find passage through the new Senate later this year.

On one hand, the figures show Sydney performed notably worse than the 34 other Australian universities whose data had been collected. They also show that a solid number of university staff (at Sydney and elsewhere) still respond with favourable answers when asked about their “job satisfaction”.

But the nationwide industrial actions last year, coupled with the fact that average scores remained fairly unimpressive in key areas, appear to expose a workforce yet to recover from previous decades of reductions to resources and funds.

“Our results, both strengths and weaknesses, are broadly reflective of sector trends when benchmarked against other Group of Eight (Go8) and Australian universities,” the University of Sydney’s statement noted.

The Greens’ higher education spokesperson Lee Rhiannon said university management teams across the country should be fighting with staff and students against Federal Government cuts to tertiary education spending.

“They’ve really got to learn that lesson of not putting the financial burden on to staff and students,” Rhiannon said. “They need to be taking it back up to governments and standing with student groups, the unions, people like The Greens, that widening community voice.”

Asked whether there was any hope for a turnaround at the University of Sydney in 2014, Michael Thomson appeared optimistic and praised the university for its recent defence of intellectual freedom, presumably referring to the university’s hosing down of The Australian’s attacks on an academic’s meeting with Bashar Al-Assad.

While the Vice-Chancellor’s office did not comment directly when asked whether any plans were in place to help improve the relationship between the university’s management and staff, NM’s staff source was less reserved.

Staff must be treated, “as people who know about their jobs … and who could offer valuable input into determining what might or might not produce good outcomes,” they said.

It will be some time before a quantitative measure of any policy changes can be produced, however, with the next survey likely to be carried out in 18 months time.

Max Chalmers

Max Chalmers is a former New Matilda journalist and editorial staff member. His main areas of interest are asylum seekers, higher education and politics.

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