THERE is no doubt that the University of Newcastle is one of the Hunter’s most significant, substantial and essential assets, and an institution of which the region, the state and Australia can be justifiably proud.
For more than five decades the university has educated, fostered and nurtured extraordinary talent, broken new ground and blazed a trail in research areas which have had impacts across the globe.
The university is right to argue, as it has with its recent rebranding project, that it needs to promote its achievements and ambitions to ensure it develops even more. A spokeswoman described the university as a “quiet achiever” that had to celebrate its success. The “The World Needs New” project, launched on Monday, should have been the first day of that celebration.
Instead the university was faced with problems from the past and questions from staff and students about the future.
The National Tertiary Education Union criticised the launch in the context of a restructure it says could see 170 of the more than 1700 professional staff facing redundancy. The National Union of Students supported staff and questioned the impact of cuts on standards.
The university responded by saying it had to respond to seismic shifts in the tertiary sector across Australia, including an end to the period when government funding followed the demand for university places.
All sides in this argument have good reason to put their cases passionately and forcefully. Given this is a clash of ideas, ideals and, in some respects, ideologies, within a university context, we would expect nothing less. But there is another element that must be recognised, and that is trust.
This week the university confirmed it will end its extremely controversial $88 million, five year contract with Broadspectrum – formerly known as Transfield – after only two years. That is a good thing.
The university has to accept its association with the company running Australia’s detention centres caused enormous reputational damage, and shocked and outraged many staff, students, former students and community leaders. For many it was a moral issue requiring consistent, long term activism.
And so to this week.
The University of Newcastle needs to rebuild the trust it lost through the Broadspectrum episode. That will take acknowledgement and open communication.