An 18-month long internal review process has left the School of Culture, History and Language (CHL) haunted by the possibility of staffing cuts. Staff and higher-degree research (HDR) students are demoralised, disaffected, and overworked, with some international students at risk of being sent home if proposed changes go ahead.
Staff were individually interviewed by the College of Asia and the Pacific (CAP) Dean Veronica Taylor and CHL Director Ken George from late 2014 until between February and April 2015. In these interviews, staff were told to consider early retirement, relocation to other employers, or accepting separation packages, according to two senior academics from CHL.
At the same time, CAP Administration, the parent college of the CHL, warned staff of the School’s extensive financial problems and signalled that possible cuts to staff numbers would follow. This internal review began in August 2014.
Consequently, CHL’s academic and professional staff have suffered from low morale and heightened dissatisfaction with CAP and University administration. This was added to by the failure of CAP to provide timely financial and enrolment figures to its staff. When figures were finally provided, they were contradicted by previous and subsequent information, according to interviewed academics. Furthermore, conversations with these academics and HDR students underlined that staff disillusionment has adversely affected academic performance due to the uncertainty of their futures at the CHL.
Commenting on low morale, Vice Chancellor Brian Schmidt told Woroni, “You need to talk people through. Change is hard for everyone, and I think that if they understand the basic principles we are trying to achieve. I have no interest in gutting a great school and destroying it.”
The CHL’s professional staffing has also suffered throughout the review process, with the number of non-academic full-time staff declining from 19 to 4 in the past two years. Dr Mark Donohue, a National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) delegate at the CHL, stated that three more administrative staff had left in the last month.
The HDR student body at the CHL also suffers from similar anxieties, particularly international students. As confirmed by academics and the Committee of Concerned CHL Higher-Degree Research students (CCCH), some international students study at the CHL under scholarships. However, these scholarships are often contingent on the supervision of a specified academic. If the internal review ends up cutting this specific staff member, the student’s scholarship can be terminated, and their student visa in Australia may be revoked.
This poses an ethical dilemma to the ANU, which wants to increase international HDR admissions but cannot encourage admission if the University knows that a significant percentage of CHL staff may be cut.
Donohue said that academics have had to warn incoming PhD candidates that supervision could not be guaranteed given the CHL’s predicament, and that they should consider seeking supervision elsewhere.
HDR students currently undertaking their research are also faced with the possibility of substantial alterations to their projects, given that their supervisors may change in the future as per the proposed lay-offs. Ultimately, this severely “jeopardised academic performance” at the CHL, the CCCH said.
Recommendations of External Review Not Followed by Administration
Between the 10th and 14th August 2015, an external review of the CHL was conducted by three senior academics from respected American universities, complementing the ongoing internal review at the time. It concluded that the CHL was “an internationally strong, distinguished and distinctive contributor to scholarship and learning” about the Asia-Pacific, but recognised that its potential was constrained by “internal and external factors.”
Yet, the report also states that “restructuring at this point in time might further destabilise the position of the school” given that the CHL has only operated in its current capacity under CAP for two years.
Additionally, the report warned of the impacts decreased staffing would have on CHL’s pre-eminence in Pacific studies, specific Asian countries, and linguistics. Regarding Pacific studies in particular, the report stated that the CHL’s pre-eminence in the area “may be at risk if staff numbers in that area continue to decline.”
In terms of financial sustainability, the report found major problems in the finances of the CHL. Prior to 2014, the CHL ran on a surplus but arrived “to a $2 M deficit in 2014, projected $1.5 M deficit in 2015, and possible 2016 deficit of $700K.”
Schmidt emphasised the CHL’s financial problems and stressed the necessity of their resolution.
“It’s not like there is money growing on trees. We do have to balance the books in some sensible way, but it has to be sensible, and it has to ensure that CHL remains a great institution like it is,” he said.
The report attributed these shortcomings to “reduced undergraduate and coursework student load; increased salary costs associated with the appointment of Future Fellows; decreased HDR returns per EFTSL; decreased research infrastructure returns per dollar earned; and reduced National Institute Grant funding.”
Staff acknowledged CHL’s financial deficiencies, particularly its loss of undergraduate enrolments. Due to the restructuring of CHL under CAP, popular first-year courses and those centred on international affairs and politics have been given to other schools in the college, resulting in reduced CHL enrolments over the years.
However, Professor Robert Cribb noted that low enrolment figures have been exaggerated given the amount of specialist courses, niche language classes, and double-coded classes in the CHL.
Staff also agreed that significant expenses came from the increased salary costs of ARC Fellows, as ARC only pays a fraction of their salaries, with CHL obliged to pay the remainder. Cribb said that hosting ARC Fellows costs approximately $600K each year. Both Cribb and Donohue considered this an external problem.
The report and Donohue also cited CAP’s $2.7 M taxation of CHL each year as major expenditure source, with the latter stating that the creation of CAP has only compounded administrative complexity in managing CHL’s funding.
The report cautioned against reactionary measures in reducing expenditure, citing the CAP Dean’s withdrawal of funding from class tutoring in Semester 2, 2015. The CCCH told Woroni that they recently learned that non-language courses would not be taking additional tutors in 2016, forcing lecturers to shoulder the burden.
The report also found CHL staff were not “well-informed” of funding models and income generation, recommending that “the Dean, Director, and Department heads ensure that all CHL staff are well-informed” of funding models, revenue streams, and related costs.
Possible Disenfranchisement and Misinformation within the CHL
The external review panel’s recommendations to keep staff informed of both decision-making processes and financing information appears to have not yet been followed by CAP and University administration.
“No financial information is forthcoming, and if it is it’s changing every month,” said Donohue. This has made effective course planning difficult, especially when remedies to CHL’s financial problems are necessary.
“There is no communication between management and academics. On the ground, we’re not told what’s happening and we’re getting mixed messages [from management]. There’ve been many attempts to get hold of definite information, and many presentations of definite information [by CAP], but it just keeps changing,” he said.
Moreover, Donohue believed that the CHL Director did not have much “autonomy” either, and was “genuinely dismayed” at the review process in the CHL. Rather, most of the decision-making is passed down from the CAP Dean and the CAP administration.
The CCCH stated that they “do not feel that they are present in the thoughts of CAP and the University administration.”
HDR students were never offered human resources assistance or counselling in order to cope with the 18 months of review and the uncertainty it cast on their academic futures. Rather, the Dean of Students encouraged CCCH to inform other HDR students that University counselling services were available to them.
According to Donohue, staff were offered specialised counselling services for the review, but as of writing none have taken place.
CCCH also highlighted that students were being given a forum with CAP on the 16th February in order to voice their concerns, however these forums were criticised as being “performances”. The administration was labelled “completely un-democratic” due to the decision-making power of CAP and the ineffectuality of these forums.
Amidst this demoralisation and disenchantment with administration, staff and students were ultimately displeased with the entire internal review process, which the CCCH labelled a “nightmare.”
Cribb said that he was disappointed with the review process and felt that energy has been wasted, preventing effective strategies of recovery.
“I think CHL was a highly successful and relatively prosperous entity, even though it had a number of problems. I think those problems could’ve been tackled at their own level rather than this current approach of what’s been telegraphed as substantial redundancies and then reconstruction.”
Speaking in his capacity as NTEU delegate, Donohue said “cross-subsidisation is the only way things make sense. We want to offer small specialised courses which don’t make money but they’re cross-subsidised by large, popular courses… Not everyone has to perform to the same standards for everything that you’re benchmarking.”
Addressing these issues, Schmidt stated that he would be meeting with CHL staff and students in the coming week to discuss the future of the review and possible solutions, and said “I think we have room to improve and I think some changes will need to be made.”
“What I promise people is when we do whatever changes we do, they’re going to be against those basic principles I hold of the university, which is to be excellent, relevant and ultimately sustainable.”
At the time of writing, CHL staff and students are expecting an announcement on the 15th February from CAP that will outline the future of the CHL.