Up to 15 staff face the chop from the University of Western Australia under a new performance benchmarking scheme dubbed “rank and yank” by staff and the education union.

At least three staff from the Faculty of Engineering, Computing and Mathematics have already been made redundant, with a total of 15 staff to be tapped on the shoulder over the coming months.

The university says the organisational change process, which began in September, has been undertaken “with full staff consultation and input”. But union representative Dr Jamie O’Shea says staff consultation has been like “turkeys voting for Christmas”.

Dr O’Shea, president of the UWA Branch of the National Tertiary Education Union, is critical of the redundancy process’ reliance on a unique rankings system that “weights” various tasks performed by staff. Faculty members are measured across a five-year assessment period in research, teaching, service, internal service and collegiality.

Critics say the ranking methodology disadvantages teaching-focused faculty members by weighting teaching tasks only half as important as research — a move that has come under fire from staff in the face of increasing student enrolments. The scheme also affords lesser ranking value to staff who were assigned smaller classes to teach, as well as staff who publish their research in smaller, specialist journals rather than larger, generalist publications.

A former faculty member who accepted a voluntary redundancy package last fortnight points to a lack of procedural justice throughout the process. He’s “very disappointed” the commencement of the assessment period had not been flagged to staff at the time — had staff known in 2006 that they were to be assessed they might have addressed the particular ranking methodology that would later inform redundancy decisions.

The ex-university employee, who prefers to remain anonymous, also expresses concern the process ventures beyond the mere “organisational change” sanctioned by the university’s Academic Staff Agreement to transform redundancy into a performance management tool.

A university spokesperson blamed belt tightening for the redundancies, saying they are “one part of a process which will bring the finances of the faculty under better control and meet its budget obligations”. But the union criticises spending priorities, pointing out the university has outlaid $250 million on an expansive building project over the last six years.

Dr O’Shea says while the cuts will help in the short term, they are “clearly not in the best interests of the students and staff who really represent the University”. The NTEU, he adds, feel the university executive has “lost their way” in targeting staff as a response to financial pressure.

The spate of layoffs come months after unions first raised concerns about the safety of jobs within both the Faculty of Engineering, Computing and Mathematics and the School of Biomedical, Biomolecular and Chemical Science. The latter is currently being restructured following the newly combined faculties of science.

In response to a query about the possibility about job cuts for science staff, a university spokesperson remained tight-lipped, telling Crikey last week that “no decision had been made on whether any change in staff numbers would be part of that process”.

While the outcome of restructuring in the university’s science school remains to be seen, Dr O’Shea emphasises the current series of redundancies have caused damage enough to the institution. Lamenting the targeting of “long-serving loyal staff”, he says “both the process and the outcome of losing these colleagues has had a devastating effect on staff morale here [within the NTEU] and across the entire university”.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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