Opinion | University has new brand, but the same old issues

DISILLUSIONED: "Staff working conditions are student learning conditions, and continued attacks on one undermine both."

DISILLUSIONED: "Staff working conditions are student learning conditions, and continued attacks on one undermine both."

Patriotism may be the last refuge of a scoundrel, but is rebranding the last hope of a management that has lost its way? With great ceremony and reportedly costing more than $1million, the University of Newcastle (UON) this week launched its brand: The world needs new.

But consider what’s going behind the scenes. All eyes are instead on the Professional Staff Review, widely understood to be proposing up to 170 imminent job cuts.

Recommendations from the external consultant hired to undertake the review were due to be announced in April, but the review is seemingly in disarray: promised weekly updates for staff dried up without explanation around six weeks ago, and reports suggest that the consultant has now disappeared from campus. UON has refused to reveal the ongoing cost of the review. The $25million price for a recent similar review at the University of NSW  is worrying. Another external consultant has reportedly been hired to oversee the resultant organisational change. It appears senior management is now outsourcing management.

The seeming disarray is also evident in senior management walking away mid-review. The head of human resources will leave UON next month. Further, the university’s head lawyer is away on extended leave, and despite this week’s launch of a new brand, the marketing director has also recently resigned. Surely an indicator of good management would be to have human resources, legal, and marketing teams in place at a time of the proposed major restructure and associated massive job cuts. 

All the signs are there that the university is seeking significant financial savings through this process, and hence significant productivity increases from all remaining staff. References to improving our ‘agility, effectiveness and efficiency in a changing higher education landscape’ are received by staff for what they are – tired, empty slogans borrowed from spin doctors across the sector to try to justify cost-cutting and work intensification.

The negative impact of several years of poorly communicated, endless ‘restructuring’, and formalistic ‘consultation’ with staff and their union, after decisions have been made, has to stop. Staff working conditions are student learning conditions, and continued attacks on one undermine both. No amount of rebranding can paper over that.

Meanwhile, a number of additional, significant issues remain unresolved. The university continues to channel money to Broadspectrum, complicit in human rights abuses at the Manus and Nauru detention camps. This is despite two years of overwhelming opposition from students, staff and others, and despite recently adopting an ‘Ethical Framework’ for decision-making that claims UON aspires ‘to deserve the trust and good opinion of the communities we serve’ and be ‘accountable for the choices we make’. Really? How is management holding itself ‘accountable’ for continuing to associate the university with ongoing human rights abuses?

Last year’s Your Voice survey of staff produced devastating evidence of staff disillusionment with senior management – particularly how they handle change. Senior management may not like that staff are disillusioned with their performance, but responding with more spin and diversion, rather than substance and transparency, will only further damage this important public institution.

Associate Professor Tom Griffiths is president of the Newcastle Branch of the National Tertiary Education Union.