Nov 9, 2009

University of Melbourne spinning themselves a lie on VCA

Management and spin doctors are in denial over the unpopular changes to the Victorian College of the Arts, writes Scott Dawkins.

On  November 5, 2009, you published a "correction" to Andrew Crook’s story ("Ill will across Melbourne uni claims another victim") supplied by Christina Buckridge, manager, corporate affairs, University of Melbourne. I am writing to correct the correction. Buckridge said:
Andrew Crook cavalierly claims in his article that "A damning survey showed 40% of VCA staff would quit their positions rather than deal with further rationalisation directives from new dean Sharman Pretty. At the same meeting, 84% of staff expressed a vote of no-confidence in Pretty". To set the record straight: The meeting referred to in the statement was held on October 14, 2009 and organised by the "SAVE VCA" campaign. The university understands it was an informal gathering of approximately 40 staff members -- which is approximately 20-25% of the Faculty of the VCA and Music (VCAM) staff members in total.
All staff at VCAM Southbank (the former VCA) were sent an email invitation to a "Critical VCAM Staff Meeting" by film lecturer Ros Walker. Forty-eight staff attended included one head of school. There was nothing "informal" about it. The purpose was to refine the staff’s proposal for a curriculum consultation process. It was around a quarter of Southbank staff -- a good representation given that many VCAM staff are part-time, and many others are practising artists who only teach one or two days a week. Item two on the agenda was an anonymous staff ballot run by the National Tertiary Education Union. It was held to find out if perceptions about the depth of unhappiness at the faculty were correct. Forty four staff completed the ballot and staff were given the option to abstain from answering any question. Results were relayed back to the staff during the meeting. Key survey results included:
  • 37 out of 44 staff (84%) had no "confidence in the management of the current Dean of VCAM" (an additional three staff members were "undecided")
  • 17 out of 44 staff (39%) "plan to seek employment outside of VCAM in the next 12 months"
  • 31 out of 44 staff (70%) of staff were undecided or thought their professional advice had not been sought in "consultations about curriculum changes that have happened or are under way".
It's clear from this sample group that the dean’s leadership is not generating confidence, there is an imminent threat of talented teaching staff leaving VCAM and UoM "consultation" processes have not engaged with staff. Buckridge goes on:
The views of staff in attendance at this particular meeting are not representative of the views of all VCAM staff.
Unfortunately, the University of Melbourne have made no move to garner the opinions of all VCAM staff. In lieu of that, I would have thought a 25% sample was pretty good litmus test. Newspoll certainly rely on a lot less. Meanwhile, vice-chancellor Glyn Davis was hitting the airwaves last week to play the victim:
Jon Faine: Do you commit to consulting with the broader community? I understand the university's quite surprised at that depth of emotion and feeling from the graduate community from VCA and the arts community in Melbourne. Do you now listen? Glyn Davis: Yes but the suggestion is that we weren't listening before. Faine : That is the feeling people were given. Davis: That’s the perception it doesn’t mean it is the reality.
Really Mr Davis? But your publicist wasn’t too keen on listening to the views of 25% of your VCA staff? According to Buckridge:
No poll has been taken or other survey conducted of all VCAM staff on the subject matter of dean Pretty’s leadership.
Yes good point -- when is that poll happening? Certainly overdue isn’t it? We're hearing the word "consulting" a lot from UoM. Indeed, Glyn Davis announced only on Friday that the elusive VCA "discussion paper" will now happen sometime in the first quarter of next year. This sounded promising until he clarified that UoM would hand pick the "group of people drawn from staff and students and external arts community who will consult with people both inside and outside the institution." Why doesn’t UoM just save everyone the time and tell us what the "discussion paper" results will be now? That is:
  • Melbourne Model = Good
  • Specialised and practical-based studio training = old view
  • Dean Pretty = effective financier saving VCA from itself and;
  • The concerns of staff, student, alumni and arts industry = misinformation.
I'm not quite sure what happened to the "fully independent, transparent" and "inclusive of independent and civic stakeholders" review undertaken of the VCA's curriculum and pedagogy, together with other matters, including its finances and funding requirements", which Davis promised to all living former Victorian arts ministers back in August. Maybe it's like the promise vice-chancellor Davis made to Victorian arts minister Lynne Kosky that all VCA courses would remain 75% specialised under the Melbourne Model. Davis forgot to mention that "specialised" doesn’t necessarily mean practical/studio based training (just ask a VCAM first year music student whose credit points for practical subjects drop by 31.25% from next year). Did Davis also mention to Kosky that VCAM semesters are being cut by up to 25% from 2010 "to move to a less intensive teaching delivery model that aligns to the University academic calendar", according to the VCAM 2010 Business Plan? Buckridge claims:
Given that the phrase "84% of staff expressed a vote of no-confidence in Pretty" is factually incorrect and potentially defamatory to Professor Pretty, these facts should be noted.
It seems the only thing Buckridge's "correction" has achieved is drawing attention to UoM’s outrage that 25% of VCAM staff dare express their opinion. Note, Buckridge takes no issue with Crikey revealing that the VCAM staff present voted against implementation of the "Responsible Division Management" staffing changes (as did the UoM Law School) or that 17 highly skilled, valuable staff members from this group are actively seeking to leave VCAM. Buckridge doesn’t dispute the claim that RDM process leaves only 3% of VCAM professional staff in unchanged positions. Buckridge doesn't blink an eye about the resignation of Elizabeth Baré, the head of university services (and architect of RDM) or the "growing sense of ill will engulfing the university’s several campuses". This attitude is much like the acting-vice-chancellor telling Victorian Upper House MPs to keep their opinions to themselves when they went to debate the SAVE VCA motion in August (which they nonetheless passed unanimously). Let's cut the spin, University of Melbourne. The university can "consult" and "discuss" as much as they like. The day-to-day reality at VCA is staff opinions are shot down, courses have been cut and practical curriculum content will be lost from next year. UoM should know by now VCA staff, students, alumni and industry will not stand by and watch this senseless trashing of an Australian arts icon.

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9 thoughts on “University of Melbourne spinning themselves a lie on VCA

  1. rodbeecham

    The Vice-Chancellor is a wily old politician, isn’t he? Notice that he didn’t deny that they weren’t listening before: he said that “the suggestion is that we weren’t listening before”. He followed up by saying that a perception isn’t necessarily the reality. Both statements are true, and both leave open the possibilities that the University authorities have not been listening and that the perception is accurate.

    The Orwellian language in which decision-making is framed and, indeed, by which decision-making is determined at the University of Melbourne is something I experienced first-hand a few years ago. All members of staff from my Faculty, academic and professional (does anyone else find it curious that academics are not considered “professional”?), were invited to hear the Dean’s update on recent strategic developments. We all assembled in a large lecture-theatre, and the General Manager of the Faculty and then the Dean spoke about management decisions and their implications and took questions.

    It was a strange and desultory affair. The decisions had already been made and were not going to be altered: quite why we had been brought together was, therefore, unclear. My most vivid memory is that the Dean seemed genuinely surprised at the lack of enthusiasm and interest in the audience, but she vowed to continue with the “consultative process”.

    This is the sinister effect of managerialist language: the Dean was genuinely incapable of understanding that consultation does not mean getting people together to announce what has already been decided.

    War is Peace, Ignorance is Strength, Freedom is Slavery . . .

  2. Gavin Moodie

    So what’s your solution: for the other faculties to continue subsidising the Victorian College of Arts to have student:staff ratios and facilities far better than they have any prospect of enjoying?

  3. perspective

    Gavin, they have enough money to run the show, it is how they are making decisions to spend the money that is the problem. Do you believe the financial figures coming out of Glyn’s office? Do you see the enormous building works going on the Melbourne University campus, and the ones that are planned? A current example is the Neurosciences complex. A planned one is the huge “Nobel Laureate” Institute of Whatever’ planned on Grattan St. They are ploughing millions of their own money into these things (although they are probably hiding as much as possible in the budget figures), while at the same time increasing the layers of highly paid administrators, getting rid of staff, and increasing student numbers. The upper management do not involve the broad community of academic staff (or indeed students) in the decision making process. As Rod stated above, you are told only after the decisions have been made. I think someone tried to calculate the many thousands of ‘man-hours’ of experience that were NOT consulted before the ‘Bologna/Melbourne Model’ policies were simply ordered to proceed from Glyn Davis’ office. It is not as if there are no brains among the academic staff of the university. All were selected on the basis of high standards of academic merit, but we are treated like idiots by Glyn and many of the Deans.
    Gavin, just imagine Rupert Murdoch walking through an office and sacking half the journalists at the newspaper, and then telling the remaining ones to write only the drivel he gives them, and not to complain about it either because the decisions have been made and are final. Sadly, this might work in commercial news but it is not what works in education, particularly higher education.

  4. MichaelT

    I have mixed feelings about this one.

    I can see some educational advantages in the MM which are generally not mentioned when people get stuck into it. The trend has long been towards very narrow vocational degrees. IMHO accountants who never learn about anything under the sun except the accounting standards will be less use to the world than accountants who have some grounding in the liberal arts.

    The performing arts are a bit different, since they are by nature about performance. Also the economic realities of these professions are daunting and there is little incentive for performers to delay practice-based training until after they have completed a generalist first degree because their chances of getting a greater return out of this are nil. Most of them will be lucky to get paid employment at all. It is a totally different scenario from accounting, let along law.

    The studio-based approach is great, and there should be a place for it IMHO. But it is expensive. The extra funds to sustain it have to come from somewhere, and the Feds have never agreed to cough these up.

    So I understand why people are upset, but someone needs to come up qith a solution to these dilemmas, and not just ask the other faculties to subsidise them. The building programs are irrelevant – universities are funded for building programs by specific formulas.

    Finally I don’t know of any management model in the world, even in universities, where institutions have been successfully run according to opinion polls of staff.

    My background is in university management, and since I have gone into governance roles. I can tell you that Rule No 1 of corporate governance is – stay solvent!

  5. Gavin Moodie

    There is no need to believe any figures from the vice chancellor’s office. The Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations publishes the funding rates for each discipline cluster on its web site. The funding available for the creative arts in 2009 is $10,317 per equivalent full time student from the Commonwealth + $5,201 maximum Hecs = $15,518 per equivalent full time student per year. Out of that the VCA should set aside at least 9% contribution to capital and a reasonable contribution to utilities and overheads. The VCA should be expected to operate within this amount and not continue to be subsidised by other faculties, typically commerce which, incidentally, is funded at a much lower rate ($10,386).

  6. rodbeecham

    What is built and where building occurs are management decisions, so I’m not sure that such programs are “irrelevant”.

    It also seems a little unfair to accuse the VCAM of “asking other faculties to subsidise them” when their funds have been cut off by a management decision into which they had no input.

    The point is that “economic realities” are human constructs – they have no independent existence in the way you or I or the chairs we sit on as we write these comments do – and are capable of human modification. The “economic realities” of which MichaelT speaks – i.e. every faculty must run as a profit centre – have been invented and imposed by people who do not have to wear their consequences. That is why the people who do have to wear those consequences are upset. Equating a desire for consultation with management by opinion-poll seems hardly fair.

    The anger, as Perspective rightly points out, stems from the reality – not the perception, but the reality – that management is fattening itself enormously while at the same time telling staff that they must show a profit or be extinguished. If the “management model” adopted by the University is to command respect, some measure of leadership might not be out of place. Issuing edicts and then justifying them on financial grounds simply doesn’t wash when academic to non-academic staff ratios have shifted by more than 12.0% in favour of the latter – and all at the top end of the salary-scale – over the past decade.

  7. perspective

    Re: “I don’t know of any management model in the world, even in universities, where institutions have been successfully run according to opinion polls of staff.” – MichaelT
    This is both facetious and confuses administration with management. If you have a faculty of education, with staff who lead the world in their discipline, do you support them with administration that allows them to get on with the job they know best, or ‘manage’ them by telling them what, when and how to teach – and creating an atmosphere of fear so they don’t complain? University education in most faculties is not primarily about the study of corporate structures and fashionable management systems. For example, how many would like the ‘just-in-time’ system for providing lectures, where a lecturer walks out in front of 300 students with a textbook in hand, ready to read out another chapter to them.
    Even if you believe that a university is simply a commercial enterprise that gives the (fee-) paying customer whatever they want, where are the usual corporate checks and balances that monitor and rectify appalling leadership? Any shareholders with voting rights? Any independent board of directors? (‘No’ is the correct answer to both). Bean counters want fee paying students – their IQ is irrelevant – and don’t care if the brightest minds with a VCE are now turning elsewhere (Monash, ANU, overseas) for their professional training.
    And Gavin, we know the government funding system, that is not the issue here. How the money is being spent is the issue, and that the staff have no say in this because the management structure is secretive and undemocratic, as shown by the recent reappointment of the Arts Dean. For example, could costs be cut on the large building projects in order to keep staff (what is more important, bricks or academics?). Could the many millions that are spent on consultants, advertising, web-site advertising/propaganda be cut to retain staff?
    I recently toured through Oxford University, one of the top universities in the world, and it was explained to me how it is ‘managed’. The colleges are fiercely independent and manage their own courses. Standards are kept high. Class sizes are very small. Every college offers most subjects. Melbourne Uni could do at least the first two of these with no cost increases – if allowed to by – yes – management.

  8. Gavin Moodie

    Like all public universities, the University of Melbourne gets $26,022 per equivalent full time student in agriculture, $22,076 for engineering, $15,679 for nursing, $9,944 for humanities, etc. From that it should deduct at least 9% per student for capital, which it might spend on biochemistry buildings, dance studios or whatever. But it would be irresponsible to cut capital spending to fund higher recurrent spending since that would simply store up space problems for the future.

    From the funding per student the university also deducts a portion for overheads. It is from the overheads deduction that the university funds central administration, consultants, advertising, etc. The university could and perhaps should reduce its deduction for overheads. That would give each faculty marginally more money, say an extra 5% or even 10% per student. An extra 5% or 10% isn’t going to solve the VCA’s (or the Arts Faculty’s) financial problems. And it would be unfair to cut the administrative deduction for all students but allocate all the savings to the VCA.

    The VCA has to learn to live within its means. No amount of consultation is going to escape that, altho I concede that more ‘consultation’ may perhaps result in VCA staff, students and supporters understanding better why the VCA has to cut its expenditure.

  9. rodbeecham

    No one is asking for a hand-out, although the people responsible for implementing the changes to the University’s internal financing model keep saying they are. It seems to me that University management is caught in a trap not entirely of its own making.

    As I said on another thread, it comes back to the purpose of the University – its “core business”, if you like. If the model is purely demand-driven, then the size and resources of a faculty should reflect the number of students it attracts. However, even this simple formula is complicated significantly by the fact that the fees paid by students vary according to type of course, level of course, nationality of student, and so on.

    Then there’s the fact the the University is not an independent institution: much of its revenue comes with government strings attached. So, if a course or courses in a faculty involve, say, expensive scientific instrumentation, then in theory such courses will have to attract many more students than a less expensive course to be cost-effective. However, the Commonwealth government may decree that the expensive course supplies graduates with skills of national importance, so the course will be propped up.

    In other words, it all comes down to preferences and priorities, not to financial logic. Financial logic, in my experience, is usually invoked to justify the destruction of something policy-makers aren’t interested in.

    On the consultation issue, it would have made a lot more financial sense to talk to VCA staff before making any decisions. Even if, as MichaelT seems to imply, no one who earns less than $200K per annum is capable of grasping the concept of solvency, outlining the position to staff and inviting their suggestions as to how the faculty might live within its new means couldn’t have hurt. It may even have produced some more imaginative solutions. At worst, it would have avoided all the bitterness and negative publicity, with their consequent diversion of University resources to damage-control.

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