The University of Melbourne will restructure its senior professional staff in areas such as academic enrichment, health services, disability liaison and student housing. Six jobs are to be cut in the process and several management roles will be combined.

Affected staff will have to reapply for the new positions formed as a result of the restructure. Staff have been reluctant to speak on the record, but have expressed concerns about a loss of professional expertise.

The restructure, reported in this month’s edition of student newspaper Farrago, affects staff in a range of areas including enrolments, scholarships, academic skills, international student services, disability liaison, counselling, chaplaincy, children’s services, health services, financial aid and careers and employment.

“All of [these managers] have many years of experience in focusing on those specific topics and a lot of expertise in their own respective fields,” said one professional staff member at the university, who did not wish to be named. “Some of them are award-winning in their own respective fields.

“A reduction in roles in the student support area is going to reduce the capacity of the student support areas to respond to complex student issues.”

The campus branch of the National Tertiary Education Union is planning a major campaign on the issue, according to representative Melanie Lazarow. “We want to give them an opportunity to come to the party and change their original plan because this is a proposal,” she said, citing a planned meeting with university administration on April 4.

“But we know what Melbourne University’s like and we know when a proposal goes up this can be the last thing we hear about it so we want changes.”

According to a copy of the “Change Management Plan” outlining the proposal, which is still in draft form, the changes to staff “will reduce management costs”. The plan also explains that the restructure is a response to a review of the university by consultancy firm PhillipsKPA, which found that the university was not meeting student expectations about service provision.

Several staff members have acknowledged that problems exist with service provision, but have expressed concerns that the proposed response will make the situation worse for students. They expect the closure of some services and longer waiting times for others.

“What will be a challenge is to see whether access to service has decreased or increased for students,” said one professional staff member, who did not wish to be named. “It may be that enrolment improves, but do they have to wait longer to see an academic skills adviser? At the moment if somebody wants to see a disability liaison officer there’s no appointments until April. So does that become, then, May?”

Another professional staff member said the restructured departments “will not deliver at the current level that the university delivers their services”.

“There will be increased waiting times and some of the services will not function at all, they will close,” the staff member added. “There will be no proactive work possible in managing health and other matters of student distress.”

International students are another group that may be affected. Some service provision for this group may move to the faculty-based student centres, which are already stretched, although this has not been confirmed.

“We have a policy of seeing students as they come,” said senior international student adviser Margaret Loh. “We realise that for some students the act of coming to ask for help is a huge step. They have worked up so much of their energy to bring themselves to this point, only to be told to come back later, or to see a humongous queue that would last for 40 minutes — it would just deter them. And we then lose the opportunity to effectively help that student.”

The plan is subject to a staff consultation process and workshops on the proposed changes are being conducted for affected staff. Three focus groups with staff will be held this week and the university administration has invited union representatives to attend and observe these.

The student services affected are within the division of the provost, professor John Dewar. He emphasised that the proposed changes are subject to ongoing consultation.

“It is absolutely not the intention to reduce service levels to students,” he said. “It’s quite the opposite. What we’re seeking to do is to reorganise staff structure to invest more in front-line service delivery and less in management.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for staff to express their views and to shape the next stage of the consultation. I encourage them to get involved.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey