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Threatened cuts to key support positions and research have sparked unprecedented protests at the University of Sydney and elsewhere and jeopardised the top-tier status that draws students. By Rick Morton.

The ‘institutional rot’ of Australian universities

The University of Sydney shortly after the city exited a four-month Covid-19 lockdown in October 2021.
The University of Sydney shortly after the city exited a four-month Covid-19 lockdown in October 2021.
Credit: University of Sydney

A proposal to gut technical support positions at the University of Sydney and force academics to fight for their own research allocations has been described by staff as an “illogical, reckless and callous plan that will inflict significant damage on the university”.

In confidential feedback to the proposed changes, seen by The Saturday Paper, academic and professional employees of the flagship university have warned that the centralisation of critical and highly skilled support services is a one-way ticket to mediocrity.

In its attempts to push through major changes during enterprise bargaining negotiations, the university, which posted a $1.04 billion operating surplus last month, has become an emblem of a higher education sector in which academic and casual staff complain of being overworked and suffering under persistent job insecurity.

“The idea that knowledge can be centralised by the bureaucracy is deeply anti-intellectual,” University of Sydney National Tertiary Education Union president Professor Nick Riemer tells The Saturday Paper.

“Instead, these places that posture as being beacons of critical thought are actually massively authoritarian bureaucracies.”

These are big claims, although this moment in the higher education sector is itself a significant one.

Throughout last month, the NTEU held three strikes as negotiations continued. The size and scope of the industrial action at the university is unprecedented in the higher education sector, Riemer says. “It is a sign of just how bad things have become.”

So much about the operation of these institutions remains opaque and nebulous, especially to the majority of Australians who have never studied in them. Yet the crisis they face is simple enough, articulated by the university itself.

“What has changed in Australian universities over the last 30 years, in response to policy decisions taken by successive Australian governments, is that they have been forced increasingly to earn more of their income from non-government sources,” a spokesperson for the university said in a statement.

“Back in the 1980s it was not uncommon for Australian universities to receive more than 90 per cent of their funding from the Commonwealth. Today, for the University of Sydney, that figure is well under 30 per cent, excluding domestic student contributions made through the Higher Education Loan Program.”

When revenue shrinks, it is staff who bear the brunt. Since 2017, for example, the number of continuing and fixed-term academic and professional staff positions at the University of Sydney steadily increased, until 2020. As the pandemic hit and the Coalition government deliberately excluded universities from accessing JobKeeper, staffing levels declined. The majority of redundancies and cost-saving measures were at the expense of casuals and teaching staff on sessional contracts.

“The minute the pandemic hit, they just kicked casuals to the kerb,” one casual academic says. “No one knows how many casuals were included in the Covid redundancies, because they were deliberately not counted.”

Even so, the University of Sydney and others like it in the sector are increasingly reliant on casual teaching staff to plug holes. By its own data, the number of fixed-term academic staff positions grew from 1693 in 2017 to 1799 last year. For continuing academics, the overall position numbers fell by 18 positions during the same period.

What this data does not capture, however, is the number of casuals. There were almost 10,000 of them in 2020, accounting for just 500 full-time-equivalent positions. The budget for these casuals was then slashed by 15 per cent.

At the time these figures were released, in the university’s annual report, then vice-chancellor Michael Spence described casuals as “warm bodies”, which confirmed, in the minds of overworked staff at least, that there was little love for these key teaching positions. Certainly, this dismissive view is borne out by the actual conditions foisted on workers.

In May last year, the university’s casuals network, alongside the NTEU, released a report on stolen wages at the institution, based on a sample of 29 casuals and 44 contracts.

“On average, for every hour that a casual was paid for, they did another 28 minutes (0.46 hours) of unpaid work. This is equivalent to being paid from nine-to-five, but staying back until 9pm each day doing unpaid work,” the report says.

“For one participant, for every hour they were paid, they did another one hour 52 minutes (1.86 hours) unpaid. They were contracted to work approximately one full day a week, but actually worked three days per week. They did a total of 257 hours of unpaid work over the semester.”

Casual academic Riki Scanlan, for example, is allocated just 23 minutes to mark a 2000-word student paper. This is the time for which they are paid. Actually doing the job properly, however, takes much longer.

Scanlan has continued to provide detailed feedback to their students, but has added a note on each assessment when the paid allotment finishes and they begin doing the job free.

“To be clear: I am continuing to give feedback after these notes,” Scanlan wrote on Twitter this week. “Sometimes quite extensive feedback. But my students should know where my marking is no longer paid, and where I am self-exploiting in order to give them the quality education that they’re paying for.”

In conversations with university management, another view is put forward: this is simply a waste of time; students don’t read the feedback. It’s an extraordinary claim for a teaching institution to declare that staff should not spend too much time on students.

 

There is a core friction at the heart of the modern university. In order to make money they must be seen as the best in the field. Status and rankings draw students, whether domestic or lucrative international cohorts, and become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. In order to save money, however, they put these same prizes at extreme risk.

In a private presentation by management in March, results from the national Student Experience Survey – with a sample size of 250,000 students covering 40 universities and other institutions – revealed just 55 per cent of Sydney students found academic or learning advisers to be “available”, the lowest result of any university.

“From 2015, the University of Sydney has performed poorly across many student experience areas,” the presentation said, “and in some cases, we are the worst performing institution in the country.”

Between 2020 and 2021, things have deteriorated further. Academic staff-to-student ratios have blown out from one staff member for every 14.9 students to one for every 20.3 students.

“We are in the process of recruiting a backlog of approved academic positions that have remained vacant due to the impact of Covid on recruitment and the labour market,” the university spokesperson says.

“We have heard the concerns from staff and are committed to addressing workload allocation issues. Workload issues have been a key discussion point in recent negotiations and we have proposed some changes to the agreement to address some of these issues.”

At the same time, a staff survey conducted by an independent firm across institutions – results of which have been seen by this newspaper – show only 52 per cent of University of Sydney staff said their wellbeing at work was okay.

“That is a pretty serious sign of institutional rot,” one professor at the university says. “They didn’t even bother measuring this in 2021. The administration at the uni is broken. They treat staff with contempt.”

A spokesperson said that this result “came from a single survey conducted during one of the Covid-19 lockdowns”.

They stressed: “The result, a ‘workplace wellbeing’ indicator of 52 per cent, reflected the emotional wellness of staff at work during the lockdown and their ability to successfully manage stress. Analysis of this data shows that the university workplace wellbeing score of 52 per cent indicated a ‘moderate’ rather than a ‘crisis’ level.”

The spokesperson said the university ranked “just below the average” on benchmark data for Australian and New Zealand universities across previous years.

At its core, Nick Riemer says, the union campaign at the University of Sydney is about “managerial capture” at the top and increasingly at the middle of the organisation. He says this shifts the institution further and further away from what it ought to be.

“Managers are a self-perpetuating cadre of people in the university,” he says. “There is this sense that they have to create problems for their successor to fix. Universities everywhere now are essentially private, for-profit institutions rather than institutions for the public good.”

Take, for example, the mooted changes to the research support and the gold-standard “40:40:20” rule that guarantees teaching and research staff will have 40 per cent of their paid time to spend on teaching or related activities, 40 per cent on research and scholarship and 20 per cent for professional and community engagement and administration. This is baked into the current enterprise agreement. The University of Sydney wants it gone.

“This is WorkChoices for research,” Riemer says. “Management want to abolish this and force us to negotiate a research quota every year. They want to play favourites about what research actually gets done.”

Academic staff fear the university could grant research quotas to lucrative or especially valuable fields while starving other specialties of the time and resources needed to do the work of scholarship, a key feature of the academy in the first place.

But a spokesperson for the university says it is likely very little will change. “We don’t think that teaching demand is the best way to work out how much research should be undertaken in each discipline. That is, we don’t think we should necessarily concentrate our research in those areas where we attract the most students,” the spokesperson says.

“We are seeking to change academic workload allocations and believe that it’s important to foster the talents of our academic staff who excel at teaching, and that research and teaching excellence must be valued and rewarded equally.”

Sydney is a “research-intensive” university, the spokesperson says, and “the majority of our continuing academic roles will remain teaching and research roles based on a 40:40:20 workload allocation, even with the changes we are seeking.”

Outside the EBA negotiations, however, the organisation is pushing ahead with plans to rip technical and research support staff away from schools and campuses and furnish a new “hub-and-spoke” model with some, but not all, of the old skills. These are the expert professional staff who maintain labs, calibrate hyper-sensitive equipment and machines, run complex computer systems and serve both academics and their students in completing research. A new model would feature a reduction in headcount across the university and force staff and students to book technical support the way a student might hail a driver through Uber.

“We have spent more than 10 years developing an internationally unique learning resource for medical imaging students, and the faculty of Health Sciences invested close to $100,000 on the associated two magnetic resonance imaging systems,” one staff member said of the proposal in a confidential report obtained by The Saturday Paper.

“The proposal designates as redundant the engineer who developed and maintains critical hardware and software for this system. I have no confidence that the proposed model will enable maintenance and ongoing development of this system.”

These are not isolated concerns. Other staff noted it was “delusional” to believe that cutting costs could actually improve research at the university and called for management to admit that the quality of work done by researchers is a direct result of the quality of support provided.

The proposed research and education technical support draft change presents a direct threat not only to professional staff but also to the hundreds of researchers they support every day.

For the School of Life and Environmental Sciences, staff assume the proposed position numbers under the new model have been created by pure “guesswork”. It does not explain, for example, how reducing 30 teaching support positions in the school to 19, plus five research support positions, will enhance teaching technical services. This plan, according to staff, is “deficient in evidence and logic” and “will cause significant and numerous damaging effects to the university”.

A spokesperson for the University of Sydney said the “rationale for this proposed change is driven by the need to continually enhance our teaching and research support by providing technical support services that are client/academic focused, high quality and agile”.

One academic noted in an internal document sent to management that the plan was so bad it would receive a score of just 25 out of 100 if submitted by a student.

According to a briefing paper from the NTEU University of Sydney branch, 78 positions will be made redundant under the proposed centralisation of support services. More positions are slated to go under other “change management processes” at the university.

“Losing one’s livelihood is one of the most stressful experiences an employee can undergo,” the briefing document says.

“The consequences for the physical and mental health of people whose jobs are made redundant can be severe. In an institution which claims that staff health is a priority, making people’s jobs redundant should only ever be done as a last resort.

“However, the scale of redundancies often seen in University of Sydney change processes indicates that making jobs redundant has been selected as the very first option.”

Under the current enterprise bargaining agreement, any changes conducted by the university must be the subject of detailed consultation and several rounds of feedback. But because the substance of these matters technically sits outside the purview of the enterprise agreement – the agreement governs what process must happen when making changes at the university, not the outcome of those changes – the University of Sydney refused to negotiate.

“This refusal is in direct contradiction with management’s commitment, in their ‘Outline’ document of last August, to ‘genuinely considering any other proposals put in bargaining to improve the experience of our staff’,” the NTEU says. “A proposal cannot be ‘genuinely considered’ without even exploring it with the party putting it forward.”

 

After the experience at the University of Sydney, staff at Western Sydney University and at the University of Technology Sydney have voted to strike or apply for a “protected action ballot” through the Fair Work Commission. At the University of Tasmania, three executives have resigned in three weeks after the introduction of the “integrated learning” – the so-called “low-contact curriculum” that reduces face-to-face learning and has been the source of significant unease at the institution.

It might be difficult to square the parlous state of affairs for students and staff with recent university results. Sydney led the way with its $1.04 billion surplus but the University of Queensland, UNSW Sydney and Monash University all recorded operating profits in excess of $300 million. Smaller universities also did extraordinarily well in 2021, with Charles Sturt delivering a $143 million surplus and the University of Newcastle $185 million.

As the University of Sydney’s Damien Cahill wrote in The Conversation on Thursday, higher education outfits “took the corporate route” to deal with wildly fluctuating economic conditions over the past two years.

“They restructured aggressively, losing incalculable expertise and institutional memory and throwing thousands of staff into unemployment. This process boosted ‘profits’, with employee expenses down at many universities,” he said.

Meanwhile, the sector continues to bleed. A highly credentialed academic at the University of Sydney told The Saturday Paper he had just decided to “call time on my teaching career” at the organisation. “There is now zero administrative support for unit co-ordinators,” he said. “No shortage of pain there. The sector is in deep, deep trouble.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 4, 2022 as "‘This is WorkChoices for research’".

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Rick Morton is The Saturday Paper’s senior reporter.

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