People & Ideas

Mar 28, 2012

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

In the public interest, the intangible values underpinning academic life need to be restored to their rightful place, writes University of Sydney Associate Professor Jake Lynch.

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?

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11 thoughts on “Sydney Uni staff cuts: a public university should not be for sale

  1. Gavin Moodie

    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

    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

    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. Gavin Moodie

    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

    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. Gavin Moodie

    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

    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. Tom McLoughlin

    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

    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

    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

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