22 November 2011

Message from the Vice-Chancellor: 2012 budget and staffing

An email to all University of Sydney students from Vice-Chancellor, Michael Spence:

Dear student,

As you may have heard, the University of Sydney is planning some major changes in the coming year.

Many of you will be aware that some of our facilities are run down and in need of repair, and our IT systems are overdue for upgrading.
Repairs, maintenance and upgrades of this scale do not come cheaply – in 2012 alone we need to spend $53 million on repairs and maintenance and replacement of basic IT infrastructure, some of which is 20 years old.

This work can’t be postponed any longer.

To meet these costs and to begin saving for further improvements, we will have to take some prudent measures in 2012. Every area of the University is being asked to make savings, and we will have to accelerate some of the organisational changes we have been planning. We need to reduce the cost of our administration and staffing, and a small number of academic staff who are no longer contributing significantly to our research or teaching will be offered redundancies or early retirement. [My emphasis.]

In taking these steps, we aim to provide you with a reinvigorated, more innovative learning environment, and to give you buildings and facilities of which we can all be proud. You deserve the best.

Yours sincerely,

Michael Spence
Vice-Chancellor and Principal


Translated, this basically means USyd want to build some pretty facilities (like a cafe in Fisher Library - the Southern Hemisphere's largest bibliothèque - for which 500,000 books must be removed), upgrade on technology (which will always need to be upgraded anyway!), and get rid of any staff whose student evaluation responses and research 'contributions' are not up to the university's standards (i.e. are not making monetary profits for them or whose classes are not functioning in a suitably 'outcome'-based manner - God forbid a challenging lecture, God forbid a specialised subject that necessarily has small enrollment numbers!).

Furthermore, Spence uses the lame excuse of old infrastructure to justify the trimming off of any staff (and departments if he had his way, read: the near-dissolution of Sydney's brilliant Political Economy department) who do not fulfill his (and the University's funders') ideas of what research and teaching are about. (For more information on USyd's 'Investment and Capital Management', click here.)

I would vehemently argue that research and teaching have nothing to do with profit-margins, evaluation forms and bureaucratic examination processes (and also not much to do with IT systems, if I'm honest), but I guess I am naive to think that a university might be a place where one learns how to think not how to tick pre-determined boxes.

It is actually embarassing that Spence would make the assumption that I would be 'proud' of these changes and the so-called 'reinvigorated, more innovative learning environment' that he will be providing me with. Somehow, I highly doubt it. These catchy words actually say nothing to me except 'neoliberal dogma'.

Outrageously, we now clearly see from Spence's friendly little email that The University of Sydney is well and truly - as if we didn't already know, thanks ANZ bank for sponsoring our student cards - going down the dark and pathetic path of putting profit over education, infrastructure over experience, pre-determined outcomes over the possibility of challenging knowledge structures and learning from teachers who themselves love learning without knowing where it might lead.

We need education that acknowledges the unknown and allows for students and teachers to approach new ideas together and without the pressures of profit-margins, endless funding applications and bursary justifications, the need to publish-for-the-sake-of-publishing, ubiquitous evaluation questionnaires that assess the performance of teachers in terms of 'learning outcomes', and the idea of students as full fee-paying 'customers' who cannot be criticised or failed because we need their money.

Well done, Michael Spence, bravo to you for this stroke of economic genius! Thank you for confirming my suspicions that The University of Sydney is no longer an institution that promotes learning in an unfettered manner but rather the contrary - fettering in an unlearned manner. The fetters are in the finance.

That said, Spence is right about one thing: students really do 'deserve the best'. But unfortunately for all of us, including Spence, this is not it! Universities are not meant to be businesses! Financial viability is not a relevant factor in evaluating their success or the success of their staff.


EDIT: Matthew Thompson, an editor at The Conversation, has posted an interesting article in response to these measures and the email that was sent to all staff (slightly more detailed than the student one). Read it here: http://theconversation.edu.au/sydney-uni-to-cut-academic-and-general-staff-but-boost-it-4404

Interestingly, Thompson reveals: "The announcement comes less than a fortnight after the University of Sydney recorded 2010’s third highest operating surplus of any university in the country. Third only to the University of NSW and the Australian National University, the University of Sydney last year notched up an operating surplus of $113.7 million, with over half a billion dollars in revenue coming from student fees and charges, student contributions, and Commonwealth contributions in lieu of students paying upfront fees."

Well, well, well, "difficult times", eh, Mike?

EDIT 2: I received this response from David Pacey - Executive Director and Portfolio Manager, Office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Education and Registrar - after sending the Vice Chancellor a link to this blog post:

Dear Eleanor

Thank you for your email and detailed BLOG expressing concern in relation to the necessary adjustments to the University’s 2012 Budget.

The University takes your concerns and feedback seriously and your views will inform ongoing budget discussions.


Really? It's like they've never seen the word 'BLOG' before ... !

EDIT 3: A group of University of Sydney staff have co-authored an article titled 'Sydney University Academics Speak Out' for the independent news website NewMatilda.com (published 5 December 2011). A very good explanation of what's really going on here.

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