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Sydney Uni staff cuts: a public university should not be for sale

Fellows of the University of Sydney Senate have been petitioned, by more than 2500 people including many members of the university’s own staff, and colleagues from around the world, asking them to call a halt to a “change plan” devised by Vice Chancellor Dr Michael Spence.

The scheme calls for hundreds of academics and administrators to be dismissed forthwith. But the underlying drama has ramifications far beyond the jobs and careers that hang in the balance. Student numbers are rising, but by less than projected, so staff cuts are sought in order to finance the university’s ambitious building plans. It raises the question: what is “value” in a university?

Academics feel themselves to be members of a community of learning, sustained by — and helping to sustain — intangible values such as scholarly integrity and commitment to students over and above the call of duty. Against that is the argument unis should prioritise measures to build up their capital stock. That has been imported from the world of business, where shareholders ultimately look to sell their equity stake to others who will assess value chiefly on tangible assets.

The University of Sydney Act of 1989 is typical of legislation adopted for Australian universities at the time — as economic rationalism tightened its grip — in stipulating that at least two Senate Fellows should bring senior commercial experience. To have that expertise on tap is no doubt useful. But it should not be allowed to sow confusion over the nature and purpose of scholarly research and higher education. These activities are part of society, and they should offer vantage points to inspect and assess rival economic claims from the outside, not absorb them into their concept of value. A public university is not for sale.

Academic redundancies are nothing new, of course. Now, at the Australian National University, the collars of academic gowns are being nervously adjusted as Vice Chancellor Ian Young has announced 150 staff will have to be shed there too.

Two aspects have marked out the Sydney plan as being of particular concern. One is that these are not genuine redundancies: student numbers are rising, so departing lecturers will have to be replaced. The other is the criterion being used to select candidates for dismissal.

Last October, the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences — hardest hit by the job cuts — published “research expectations” for staff to be deemed “satisfactory” in their performance. The number of “outputs” required — just under one per year for a typical academic — was then abruptly raised, just a month later when the change plan came out, to four in three years, and applied retrospectively. Anyone whose output had not met this new target was immediately put on a hit list.

The Act gives Senate Fellows responsibility to ensure procedural fairness in line with “community expectations”. It cannot be right that an employer can tell staff one thing one minute, then something completely different the next, and propose to sack them for not doing something they had no reason to realise they should have done.

Again, though, the ramifications are much wider. Recall the remark attributed to Albert Einstein: not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts. “Spence’s razor” risks creating perverse incentives. With dozens more allegedly “under-performing” academics being forced to choose between job loss, and accepting a “teaching-focused” contract, students may end up being taught by lecturers who are not active in research, while the “stars” spend all their time out of the classroom.

Then, does society at large really want academics to concentrate on stacking up journal articles for each other to read, for fear of losing their jobs? A decent public-interest definition of academics’ work would make us responsible for enabling a society where theory and practice are more attuned than they often appear.

Indeed, nostrums familiar from political and media discourses have attained currency despite, not because of, what relevant scholarship has to say about them, especially in the social sciences. The “war on terrorism”, for example, or the notion of asylum seekers as a “threat”, constitute an affront to social science, just as global warming denialism affronts climate science, or creationism insults evolutionary biology.

We can bring scholarly insights to bear in the public sphere through a host of intangible means: from guiding students to an insight that transforms awareness of a particular issue, to the germination and slow flowering of a new idea, given time to mature so it can be presented authoritatively to different audiences. There are no “points” in the system for public writing, even though it reaches a much larger audience. To impose arbitrary “targets” is to risk crowding out some of the most important aspects of our work.

Sydney University needs new buildings, just perhaps more humble ones than the soaring edifices, costing hundreds of millions of dollars, presently planned. And of course universities need to move with the times, and that entails some staff leaving as others arrive. But that can be achieved through evolutionary means: planned retirements and voluntary redundancies.

Serving on a university board is not, perhaps, a pastime of high excitement. But Fellows are there to represent the interests of society at large, with a crucial role to play in what one of my distinguished colleagues, political scientist Professor John Keane, calls “monitory democracy”. And in the public interest, the intangible values underpinning academic life need to be restored to their rightful place.

*Associate Professor Jake Lynch is the Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney

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  • 1
    Posted Wednesday, 28 March 2012 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    I understood that academics who did not achieve the University of Sydney’s research expectations were invited to accept a teaching intensive position or redundancy, not ‘dismissed forthwith’ as claimed in this piece.

    The University of Sydney spends more on salaries and more on academic salaries than other Australian universities and rather more than other Group of Eight universities such as the University of Melbourne. Therefore it is at least arguable that there is scope for the University of Sydney to cut expenditure on staff.

    The University of Sydney has underperformed in research for decades, shown most recently in the 2010 excellence in research for Australia assessments. The University of Sydney should definitely improve its research performance, and it would be good if it improved its teaching performance as well. Publishing 4 articles in 3 years is not onerous in most fields, including in the humanities.

    Nonetheless, the University of Sydney could have managed its current staff restructuring much better.

  • 2
    jmendelssohn
    Posted Wednesday, 28 March 2012 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

    There are of course other measures of excellence than publishing X number of articles in Y years, and the scandal of Sydney’s approach was that the Vice Chancellor didn’t include these. So people with an excellent track record of participating in large collaborative ARC grants received purge letters, as did those who were well known for mentoring research students through to completing PhDs.
    The publication problem was compounded, and further biased against the humanities, by treating all HERDC [Higher Education Research Data Collection – stats by which quality research is measured] publications in the same manner. So a co-authored journal article with 15 others (common in the sciences) was treated in the same manner as a sole authored book (a work of many years and more typical of the humanities).
    Pruning staff is best done with secateurs, not a chain-saw.

  • 3
    Jake Lynch
    Posted Wednesday, 28 March 2012 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

    No, they are to be dismissed forthwith, in 100 cases, and ‘offered’ a ‘teaching-focused-position-or-dismissal’ deal in 64 others. Not forgetting the general staff whose positions are simply not being filled when they leave.

    If salaries do have to be cut, there is plenty of low-hanging fruit before sacking staff who deal directly with students - the frontline lecturers and administrators who are being targeted.

    Cutting the considerable numbers of corporate lawyers would be a good place to start.

    Any shortfall in research performance is moot - Sydney does pretty well in ARC grants, international performance league tables and so forth. However it is something to be managed, not met with the retrospective imposition of unilateral criteria for keeping one’s job.

  • 4
    Posted Wednesday, 28 March 2012 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

    I think a book gets 4 Herdc points.

    While the University of Sydney may employ several corporate lawyers I would be astounded if it employed 164. Those who wish to propose alternatives should propose something credible if they want to be taken seriously.

    The top Australian universities in Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s academic ranking of world universities in 2012 are:

    University of Melbourne 60
    ANU 70
    University of Queensland 86
    University of Sydney 96.

    It is extraordinary that the University of Sydney should be overtaken in this rank by the University of Queensland, which is 60 years its junior. The University of Sydney has coasted for too long on self referential accounts of its own worth.

    However, I agree that this is not the way for the University of Sydney to improve its research performance or to cut its recurrent expenditure, whatever senior management thinks it is trying to do.

  • 5
    jmendelssohn
    Posted Wednesday, 28 March 2012 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    One of the problems with the first (now defeated) Sydney University approach was that it took HERDC publications and ignored the point ranking (which is already biased against major individual works of scholarship). Instead it treated all publications as equal, ranking multi-authored journal articles the same as books. There is a reason for the rage emanating from Sydney University staff, graduates and students. Unless Sydney sorts this out people will be rewriting their wills.

  • 6
    Posted Thursday, 29 March 2012 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    I agree that Herdc points undervalue sole authored books, altho I wonder whether it over values edited books.

    But it is very strange that the University of Sydney should seek to assess research performance by the numbers. A research intensive university such as the University of Sydney should have such decisions taken by heads of schools in collaboration with discipline heads and deans of faculties.

    Furthermore, research is a long term activity and measures need to be taken for and assessed in the long term. Time should be invested in making such decisions carefully since their effects and evaluation emerge long after they are implemented.

  • 7
    Sherman Brad
    Posted Thursday, 29 March 2012 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    The whole paper-chase mentality regarding assessment of academic performance blights the CSIRO as well as universities. I believe it is a system embraced by managers who are too lazy, busy, incapable or ignorant to actually read the work of their staff and and assess its value on its intellectual merits. It provides an appearance of objectivity and quantitative accuracy by effectively outsourcing responsibility for assessment of research output to those outside the organisation.
    As soon as H-index ranking came out we were actively encouraged to game the system by selecting high profile journal (high impact factor) and writing review papers (popular with newer scientists coming up to speed in a field). Generating new knowledge is more costly and time consuming so the economic incentive is biased towards rehashing old material.
    I wonder how long the system will persist before it collapses under its own weight? We researchers are bombarded by requests to review papers for journals (and in the current environment we don’t have salaried time allocated for such tasks unless you want to call it ‘professional development’ ).
    The pressure to publish (because it’s easy to count volume) has led to a lot of unsubstantial papers being submitted, delays in reviewing, introduction of numerous new journals to accommodate all the rejections from the longer-established journals, etc. As a researcher I often feel quite overwhelmed just trying to keep up with the literature in my areas of interest and I often find we spend a lot of time rediscovering things we new 40 years ago.

  • 8
    Posted Thursday, 29 March 2012 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    This build it and they will come rationale for junking the intellectual capital of the university (not my alma mater which is ANU) should itself be “performance reviewed” for post GFC (#1 of 2?) strategy, finance and arguably common sense.

    In the last few days the big retail precinct in Parramatta development has fallen over.

    Just over the road at the impressively reborn Broadway retail precinct has got it’s wings burned on the extra floor extension just as the GFC bit and web retail transition bit hard.

    In other words what exactly is the retail profile for the tertiary education sector? I read recently that the high dollar is impacting on the Indian billionaire entrepeneur tertiary education project located at the Olympic/Homebush Bay precinct (via the Oz education supplement).

    My guess the DA building and construction crowd possibly need to have a good hard look …. at themselves, and quite possibly think again along the lines of consolidation of intellectual capital and student services and micro reforms adjusting faculties and courses for the web based mentoring age, perhaps. Just a few ideas of the top of my head.

    Declaration: I was banned off Sydney Uni campus for a year for taking photographs of security staff during a pro eduction rally in 2006 or so. The ban was overturned after complaint to the NSW Ombudsman. Such is the life of an indy blogger.

  • 9
    paul walter
    Posted Thursday, 29 March 2012 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    It’s a scabby, ideologically driven and repressive piece of work from Spence.
    A normal person would hang their head in shame.
    But what is the pathology of a committed neoliberal?

  • 10
    Peter Hill
    Posted Friday, 30 March 2012 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    The staff cuts are going about the wrong way. Instead should start cutting not essential management. Spence has far too many managers. If Spence spends less time going overseas, Brazil and Chile, he can easily see it. Uni has far too many highly paid solicitors within its own department Office Of General Counsel who do basically nothing for added value. If a lawsuit arises uni enlists outside counsel. The uni solicitors cost far more than the 164 staff combined x 4. Solicitors provide no added value. Many complain they are a hindrance and protect only management

  • 11
    Posted Saturday, 31 March 2012 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    From my review of the web site of the University of Sydney’s office of general council I gather that the university employs 19 solicitors. Even if all of those could be saved without incurring costs from instructing external solicitors, this would go no way near the savings of 164 staff.

    Some 29% of the University of Sydney’s expenditure is on general staff salaries, which is somewhat higher than the Australian university average of 27%. This suggest that there is scope for the University of Sydney to cut its expenditure on general staff. However, 39% of the University of Sydney’s student load is in the natural and physical sciences, engineering and health which employ more general staff than other disciplines for labs and workshops. Since the Australian university average in these equipment intensive fields is 30%, the University of Sydney’s extra expenditure on general staff is likely to be due at least partly to its discipline mix.

    Nonetheless, a credible argument could be made that the university should make all its savings in administration rather than shared between admin and academe. But I wouldn’t try to identify specific administrative savings since most of these can be justified rationally by people who have more detailed knowledge of the administrative process. Rather, I would set a broad goal of saving in administration of $41 million (a rough estimate of the cost of 164 staff, at a total cost of $250,000 per staff member) within 5 years and double that within 10 years.

    These savings would be found by a administrative savings exercise. Most would be achieved by automating current manual processes which would mean that they would have to be standardised to maximise savings and thus accommodate few variations for each academic and school. Academe would also accept that some of these savings would be found by cutting admin services to academe, but others would be saved by cutting admin services to central admin.

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