University of Newcastle staff fear 'massive job losses' after review, Union warns

University of Newcastle Vice Chancellor Caroline McMillen. PICTURE: Wayne Taylor
University of Newcastle Vice Chancellor Caroline McMillen. PICTURE: Wayne Taylor

STAFF at the University of Newcastle fear an “organisational review” unveiled this week could lead to “massive job losses” for non-academic workers.

Vice-Chancellor Caroline McMillen says the restructure is about “embracing changes” to the sector, and “ensuring that we’ve got the best organisational and professional support at the university for what is a changing academic enterprise”.

But the National Tertiary Education Union warns that is code for job cuts, and that the changes are simply about “reducing costs”.

University bosses began briefing staff this week on the terms of the university-wide restructure, with some staff saying they had been told about 170 of the more than 1700 full-time and casual professional staff could face redundancy.

It has prompted an angry reaction from the union. 

Associate Professor Tom Griffiths, the president of the Newcastle branch of the NTEU, says that after 15 reviews and restructures in three years, staff are “fatigued and fearing for their jobs”.

“There is a worrying trend evident at UON,” he said.

“Senior leadership of a public university seemingly ignoring or dismissing research evidence, whether about staffing levels, or optimal office arrangements, in favour of a destructive ideology of relentless cost-cutting, out-sourcing and insecure employment.”

But Professor McMillen says that job-figure number is not right, that the university is “only at the beginning” of the review and that there is “no decision” around job cuts.

She said reviewing how the university operated was necessary “in an environment of change that has swept up all industries”.

But while she would not confirm that there would be job losses as a result of the review, she said slowing student growth four years after the introduction of the demand-driven enrolment system and wider “uncertainty” in the sector meant difficult decisions had to be made.

“The issue of how many staff you have really has to be about how big your business is,” she said.

“If you have more students coming through you’re going to need more academic staff and at some point you're going to need more professional staff. 

“However if you have a decrease in the number of students, reasonably you can't also continue increasing those numbers.

“That is something perhaps hasn’t been so prevalent for many people but it’s certainly part of the reality of the now.

“We have to look at how we’re structured, and ask have we got it right.

“It's a conversation … about thinking through different changes that might come and how do we handle that. 

“How can we make sure every dollar is supporting our core functions. I don’t think there would be an industry or business sector out there that isn’t doing the same thing, asking the same questions.”

The target of the review is the university’s more than 1700 professional staff, who fill roles ranging from academic support to research assistants.

In its “New Futures Strategic Plan” released last year, the university noted it had a higher ratio of professional to academic staff than the national average – 1.3 compared to 1.2 ratio – and states “there is value in considering whether this is the distribution of roles that will drive the best outcomes for UON”. 

But Professor Griffiths said that after the endless reviews “one starts to wonder whether the university’s current leaders know what they’re doing”.

“In the face of this latest proposal, many staff are saying their faith in the university’s senior leadership is, frankly, at a profound low,” he said.

Professor Griffiths questioned why the annual “Your Voice” survey had not been released widely, and suggested it may be because it confirmed low morale.

“This is unprecedented, and reflects very poorly indeed on management,” he said.

However Professor McMillen said the survey was being released in a more targeted way than in the past. She said results for different areas were being given to specific faculty leaders to increase staff engagement.