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Downsizing once again

September 28, 2010

The news we were all expecting finally came last week – the Faculty has declared their intention to implement “organizational change”, which is a euphemism for making staff redundant.

We will all be ranked according to various criteria (research, teaching and a few other lower-weighted things) and the bottom X% in each of the levels will be sent packing. The exact value of X is not known at this stage, but to balance the budget, about 20-25% will need to go. Presumably some people will quickly elect to retire or take voluntary redundancy before the ranking begins, thereby reducing X. Most of the relevant raw data is freely available and so once the precise criteria and their weightings are revealed, it should be feasible to figure out broadly where one stands.

Personally I am not panicking yet, although I am always a bit concerned when they try to do anything “across the whole Faculty” because in so many ways, Engineering is fundamentally different to Mathematics, and often the weights or targets they come up with are nonsensical or simply do not apply. For example, a proposed target for research supervision had to be hastily revised when it became apparent that it would require our department to produce more than half of the total Australian output of Maths higher-degree students. So I am slightly concerned that when the rankings are revealed, we will end up essentially all of the Maths people at the bottom – presumably if we all end up at the top, the weightings will be revised, but I’m not so certain about the converse.

Sometimes I wonder, wistfully, what it would be like to be in an academic system where there is still job security – indeed, whether they even exist nowadays? My American and Canadian friends still talk of “tenure” in the sense of lifetime job security, and it certainly seems that only extreme financial pressure can cause tenured staff to lose their jobs. Though perhaps these people are just in well-run universities? Here it is now all-too routine – if a single “business unit” starts to show a loss, then they can shed staff through this process. And given that for more than a decade, the government has reduced their “per-student” contribution while simultaneously forbidding universities to charge more direct fees, charge any indirect fees, enrol more students, or even alter the mix of students, it is pretty much inevitable that most “business units” are feeling the pressure. We can only hope that the proposed changes to government policy actually happen, though of course it will be far too little, too late, for a fairly significant number of our colleagues. And these are people who, in the main, have not done anything particularly wrong – just not enough of the things that are deemed right.

Perhaps Europe (mainland, that is, not UK) is the place to go? A few years ago, a European friend of mine was offered a job at an Australian university. However he had heard rumours that a few years previously, this university had fired permanent staff who had not done anything wrong, and he emailed me quietly to find out whether something so outrageous could possibly be true. Sadly I had to inform him that this was not only true, but routine, and he immediately turned down the job. He pointed out that his current position, whatever the deficiencies that had caused him to apply for another job, was at least secure as he was technically employed directly by the State and thus not subject to the financial fortunes of a single department, Faculty or even University.

Oh well, better get back to the business of writing papers – writing this blog post is just depressing me!

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One Comment leave one →
  1. September 30, 2010 6:55 am

    There are two other options which are scarcely considered in these situations: (i) demotion of staff, and (ii) salary cuts. The latter is impossible in the way the university is structured, but a modest salary cut might mean that very few jobs will need to go. I’m not sure about whether demotion is possible.

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