Academic Board, FOI and more – Newsletter November 2021

On 14th October, our association held its Annual General Meeting. The meeting was particularly well attended, which is perhaps not surprising, given the rapid turnover of material for discussion in recent months. Indeed, the speed of events has been such that our capacity to keep pace through the circulation of newsletters to our members has been seriously challenged. To address this, our committee has decided that going forward, we will endeavour to send a brief update to members directly after every meeting of the UWA ASA. This newsletter is not even slightly brief, but we hope you’ll indulge us by reading to the end.

On the menu for discussion at the AGM were the following issues:

The special meeting of the Academic Board.

The UWA ASA committee, in particular those who are also members of the Academic Board, led the call for a special meeting of the Academic Board and provided the agenda. That special meeting was held on 17 August to discuss the role of the Board in change processes in the Schools. There were seven motions tabled and three were passed, as follows:

MOTION 1 (Revised): That the Academic Board recommend to the Vice-Chancellor that the Chair of Academic Board, or their nominee, be an advisor of the Change Management Board (CMB), and provide advice on matters falling within the broader mandate of the Academic Board.

MOTION 4: That, while there may be teaching intensive staff in any discipline, no discipline at UWA be deemed teaching intensive, or comprised entirely of ‘teaching focused’ staff. Thus, the conversion of existing teaching and research positions into teaching intensive, or ‘teaching focused’ positions be negotiated at the individual level, based on the needs of the discipline and the performance history and career aspirations of the individual concerned.

MOTION 5 (Revised): That the UWA Executive provides a clear and transparent process for genuine and timely stakeholder consultation during the development of all structural reform proposals in line with the best practice expectations of the Public Sector Commission.

The Senior Deputy Vice Chancellor attended the meeting and he was one of just three attendees—the others being the Heads of Schools—to vote against Motion 5, the one regarding transparency. The Vice Chancellor was unable to attend the meeting, but was free enough to post a tweet about a musical performance at the time it was taking place. In response to Motion 1—the Board’s recommendation that the Chair of Academic Board should be invited to provide advice to the Change Management Board matters within the Academic Board’s remit—the Proposal for Change in the School of Molecular Sciences was circulated to all members of the Academic Board for feedback, after it had been communicated to the affected staff. This ‘misinterpretation’ of Motion 1 fundamentally missed the point. The motion was intended to allow the Chair of the Board (or their nominee) to provide advice during the development of the Proposals for Change, so as to avoid situations (such as that in the School of Social Sciences) where the intended decisions outlined in a proposal for change are contingent on Academic Board decisions outside the remit of the proposers to make and outside of the Executive to approve.
If you would like to read the full agenda of the special meeting of Academic Board, please contact a UWAASA Committee member. The minutes of the special meeting of Academic Board were provided in the agenda pack for the August Senate meeting. Given the abovementioned response to Motion 1, it would seem that Senate would not, or could not, compel the Vice Chancellor to act on the advice of the Academic Board.

Freedom of Information Request

The UWA ASA has submitted a freedom of information request. We all remember that the initial proposal for a restructure of the School of Social Sciences was based on flawed data—it claimed that the Anthropology and Sociology major had suffered a 77% drop in enrolments in the period 2015 to 2020. This was later corrected by the Vice Chancellor in his email to staff of 20 July as a 40% drop in completions between 2016 and 2020. Not only was the data incorrect by 37% (!!!), but the unit of measurement was also wrong (!!??) and, indeed, the period of reference. This falls way below anything that could pass for acceptable standards of good governance, even in the most generous interpretation. Imagine submitting a paper to a peer-reviewed journal based on a dataset so egregiously off the mark. It would be desk rejected, and scrupulous editors may well see fit to report you to relevant ethical boards. But fret not! This is UWA governance, isn’t it? So, just sprinkle some fairy dust and voilà! The revised proposal for the School of Social Sciences (released on 20 August) solved the problem by simply not including any data whatsoever and the proposal for the School of Molecular Sciences is very sparse on data and those given are framed very selectively. We have attempted to make sense of the criteria used by the Executive, and the SDVC in particular, to calculate the amount of cuts each school is expected to cop. We asked the SDVC during the special meeting of Academic Board through this motion:

MOTION 6: That the SDVC immediately provide the Academic Board with the specific formula being used to calculate the ‘gross margins’ on Schools, and disciplines, and provide the rationale for the differential quanta of financial cuts that have been applied among Schools.

How was this received? The minutes speak for themselves:

…. the SDVC pointed out that there was not one particular method used to calculate ‘gross margins’. It was argued that there was no simple and no single specific formula to calculate ‘gross margins’, and that it would be meaningless to dwell at such a level […] For the above reasons, the SDVC declined the request to provide any such information, even if the motion was passed.

So here we are, having to resort to an FOI to be granted access to the data and criteria that underpin redundancies, disestablishment or downgrading of entire disciplines, majors and areas of research and teaching. It is both extraordinary and depressing.
Now, after some negotiation on the exact nature of the materials being requested, UWA has until early December to deliver the requested information.

No jokes about rats and sinking ships, please

With our latest round of organisational changes now well underway, we’ve been informed of the imminent departure of the two key architects and decision makers. Both the Senior Deputy Vice Chancellor and the Director of Human Resources will leave UWA, to join other institutions in 2022. Their departure will coincide with the likely departure of many academic and professional staff who will have been made redundant as a result of their decisions. Shall we congratulate our senior leaders on their promotions? We wonder whether the unemployment, depleted mental health, and diminished career prospects of their former colleagues will bring a thought as they settle into their new roles. And, if the hiring patterns for senior roles within our sector are anything to go by, UWA will no doubt attract some new, ambitious careerists with no connection to, or abiding concern for our university. They’ll likely be arriving fresh from similarly devastated university communities elsewhere, and be keen to implement some poorly conceived but large-scale changes that will set them up for their next senior position which, with luck, they’ll be able to move into well before the true consequences of their “vision” have come to light—a story we have seen played out time and again at UWA and elsewhere in our sector. And here we are again.

Feedback on change proposals

The change proposals for the schools of Social Sciences and Molecular Sciences each attracted hundreds of feedback responses. A good portion of those were written by intelligent, experienced, and informed people, including many of our members. Nevertheless, and in both cases, the alterations made to the original proposals were superficial. Don’t be deceived by the ‘rescue’ of the Anthropology major in the revised Social Sciences change proposal; it’s in name only. None of the proposed redundancies in Anthropology and Sociology have been retracted, and the School’s capacity to actually teach Anthropology remains devastated. However, we should note that a commitment to disestablish no additional majors, to “allow” level Es in molecular science to apply for voluntary redundancy (previously excluded), and an extension of the change timeline might be taken as partial “wins.”

And since the AGM, a new scandal…

People matter, culture matters. An organisation comprises living, breathing, human beings. Human beings have needs, and rights: to be seen, heard, and respected. In different ways, and for a long time, many of us have been saying this, and asking why our leaders in the Executive and the Senate have apparently not recognised themselves as part of a community, and instead seem to conceptualise themselves as the drivers of a machine or perhaps as the engineers of a complex piece of circuitry.

For those of us who do recognise ourselves as part of a community, it was terribly disheartening to hear that someone entered the office of the Head of the School of Molecular Sciences, obtained documents related to the change process, and leaked them into the public domain. The police are involved, and careers could be ruined. The Executive’s narrative is that the leak was a ‘shocking’ criminal act. Criminal it most certainly was; but, some would argue, it was also a form of whistleblowing, and also an act of desperation. When the experience of despair and disempowerment is too great, when people have their backs to the wall, when people see no lifeline, whistle-blowing and acts of desperation are more likely.

Yes, there is a code of conduct, which we endorse and adhere to. And, the reason such codes are necessary is because organisations comprise human beings, who have feelings, sometimes strong ones, sometimes desperate ones. Indeed, the code of conduct cuts both ways, because although it protects a right to privacy, it also prohibits treating people with disrespect; and unfortunately, the content publicised as a result of this sequence of events reveals an apparent disrespect to our colleagues in Molecular Sciences. It could be argued that, if the proposal for change had been more expansive, providing reliable data on the drivers for change and explaining more fully how the change would benefit the School, and had provided staff the genuine opportunity to propose alternatives, and if the responses to the proposal had been carefully and fairly considered and at least some of the suggestions been incorporated into the final proposal, then we might not now find ourselves in the midst of a criminal investigation. There is something fundamentally disingenuous about a change process that we all know is driven purely by a financial imperative—the Vice Chancellor has made this crystal clear on numerous occasions—being dressed up for the public as a “new strategic direction”. This University has no strategy, let’s be quite clear about that. All we have is that intellectually impoverished abomination (Vision 2030 was it??) developed by one of our previous VCs and the three priorities of our current VC (cost out, growth and student experience) plus the cunning plan to effectively devolve the entire development of academic strategy in the institution to 22 different Heads of School to use as a fig leaf for their change proposals which we now know, thanks to the leak, are entirely and exclusively about cost cutting. It would appear that any proposal for change in the Schools would do, as long as it delivered the required budget savings.

In the longer term, the leaked documents would probably have come to light during the FOI process described above. We empathise with those responsible for the leak, but encourage our members and colleagues to take a measured approach to such situations. We sometimes feel helpless in the face of an administration that represents our “organisation”— an organisation that we no longer know and no longer recognise. That organisation it is still our University, and despite countless iterations of administratia that have sought to rebrand our University as a business organisation, we will fight appropriately to keep our University.

And then there was the Fair Work Commission hearing…

Symptomatic of the same problems was a Fair Work Commission hearing, held on Wednesday last week, in which the head of the School of Social Sciences took the stand as UWA’s chief witness. The dispute was initiated by a member of the School of Social Sciences and supported by the UWA ASA, UWA academics, and other interested parties. A decision has yet to be handed down, but there was standing room only at the hearing, and the crowd of staff and students was certainly not there to support the HoS. On display was a community divided against itself, but as the witnesses for the prosecution argued, it didn’t have to be this way. But even when the commissioner himself quizzed the HoS about the content of the 380 submissions received, she insisted that it did have to be this way; that her proposal was the only possible solution to the fiscal problem she was presented with.

It’s had an interesting journey, this case. The NTEU declined to take it to Fair Work on the basis that there was very little evidence that the University actually and explicitly deviated from the letter of the EBA. Surprisingly, the Commissioner was willing to hear the case, and refused the University’s request to have it heard in private on an expedited timeline. One wonders why. One potential explanation might be that while the University was fastidious about meeting the letter of the EBA on the matter of consultation for organisational change, it was egregious in its departure from the spirit of the EBA. Even if the Commissioner hands down a finding in favour of the University, allowing the case to be heard in an open commission has brought even further to light a proposal for change so mendacious and disingenuous that it drew opprobrium from across the international academy.

Mopping up the mess

So, here we are. Trusted and respected colleagues may soon be leaving us in the wake of a change process so savage that the wreckage includes a criminal investigation, a court proceeding, an Academic Board disregarded by the Executive and the Senate, several freedom of information requests, a discontinued discipline group, academics who have been effectively reclassified as ‘service teachers’, stranded postgraduate students and international reputational damage. The SDVC and the Director of Human Resources must feel so relieved to be leaving it all behind.

Our members, however, will stay, and our task will be to mop up the mess. There was discussion at the AGM about how the UWA ASA can support that process, not just in the immediate future but in the longer term, in order to break the cycles of toxicity that have such a grip on this institution.

To that end, we discussed a number of initiatives that you will soon be able to read about in the minutes of the AGM (to be circulated shortly), and that we will explain further in due course. In the meantime, we are already acting on one suggestion, for the ASA to fund morning teas in schools and centres around the campus to hear staff concerns more broadly, to build understanding and solidarity, and to strengthen the voice of academics at UWA. If you would like to host one, please contact us by return email.

As usual, please feel free to circulate this to your colleagues who are not yet members, reminding them that they can join easily online on this website and give further strength to “The Voice of Academics at UWA”.

Best wishes,
The UWA ASA Governing Committee

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