Academic Staff Cuts at the University of Sydney

When the 2011 academic year began to wind down in November, most University of Sydney students were struck dumb with the sunshine and freedom from libraries and failed to pay much attention to the email or two which popped into their inboxes. No one wants to hear about uni when they’re steadily forgetting everything they’ve learnt over the past year. But for many who did pay attention, what management revealed at the end of the 2011 academic year was extremely concerning.

Due to over-budgeting, the University announced that on students’ return in 2012, they would be short 150 teaching staff and 190 general staff. For the university to maintain the upkeep of the buildings and establish a viable ICT system, costs have to be cut. Unfortunately, this impacts on staff members. The University’s Vice Chancellor, Dr. Michael Spence, announced that the academics would be evaluated retroactively through the quantity of their research output over the past three years: they must have published at least four times for their jobs to be guaranteed. Michael Spence describes these academics as “not pulling their weight” in his video message announcing the proposal in response to the University’s 2012 budget, which can be viewed here.

The approach university management has taken towards their budgeting has been criticised by staff and alumni. Some have questioned the wisdom of placing more importance in IT and buildings than the people who teach in them, and as a consequence, the students who learn in them.

In an open letter to New Matilda, 70% of the English Department, as well as staff members from other departments in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, condemn the University’s actions:

“Management’s current summary assault on staff will not just hurt students by making their classes more crowded and their lecturers, librarians, and admin and lab assistants more overworked. It will hurt them by poisoning the environment in which they acquire fundamental habits of mind.”

While the proposal is referred to as a ‘Draft’, academics point out that for changes as devastating and evidently non-negotiable as the ones on offer, talk of consultation is merely a formality.  Furthermore, given that UNSW has recently announced 100 extra appointments, Sydney’s decision to sack staff seems unfair and misguided. The gradual neo-liberalisation of the University means that Sydney increasingly pays far more attention to its finances than the quality of education on offer to students, and as a perhaps indirect consequence, continues to drop in the university league tables.

Protest from both staff and students has come to centre around one particular academic in the English Department. During December it was announced that Dr. Bruce Gardiner would be sacked before the first semester of 2012. This was news to English students, who had enrolled in his courses for the coming year. Bruce Gardiner is a well-respected lecturer, and considered by many to be one of the best teachers in the faculty. Unfortunately, the decision to remove Dr. Gardiner was taken out of the hands of the people he teaches and the people who work with him. After a meeting with the Dean, he was offered a redundancy or a “teaching-only” position, although there is now a new final decision date: 17 February 2012.

While many students have shown support and outrage, the summer holiday, as expected, has worn away much of the force behind their argument, and a cursory glance at the Facebook group “Save Bruce Gardiner: Putting a Face on the USYD Crisis” shows a dearth of activity after late-December. The same group of students has also created an online petition to emphasise the fact that students don’t appreciate these changes and would like Sydney University to behave differently. At the time of writing, 111 people have signed the petition, falling short of the 1000-signature target. The petition can be viewed here.

With the recent allegations reported in the Sydney Morning Herald exposing the university’s unprecedented attempts at poaching students from other institutions, the reputation of Michael Spence’s time at University of Sydney is already tarnished. The reaction to the redundancy drive certainly does nothing to help.