Newsletter June 2022

We certainly can’t claim that newsletters from UWA ASA are frequent, but we hope that they are at least worth reading when they arrive. This newsletter was hard to write, and went through a few drafts. As the ‘voice of academics’ at UWA we want to voice hope and optimism, not least because — as Professor Carolyn Oldham recently reminded us, using the words of the Dalai Lama — “Leaders are not necessarily those in positions of power. Leaders are people who provide hope to those around them, especially in dire times.” Carolyn herself recently put out a personal invitation to senior professional and academic senior women to come together for afternoon tea; she was overwhelmed with responses as more than 100 senior women joined her in conversation and, thus, a new network was born. We also have a new Director of HR, which is another reason to hope that UWA is about to turn a corner for the better.

Having said that, it’s also our role to voice the concerns of academics, and many of these remain. So, a few updates for your interest and, of course, some frank reflections on the state of the U.

We organize life into academic years and the recent is always foremost. But right now we think it’s important to reflect over the last few years. Just two years ago, an epidemic of unknown potential shut borders and threatened the financial stability of Australian universities. We responded, as a community, in a generous and trusting way to solve the problem by “buying leave”. (Actually being able to make use of this purchased leave, for staff overwhelmed by the unprecedented demands of the pandemic, was a different story.) We were rewarded for our good faith with revelations of a structural deficit and a brutal restructuring in 2021 that devastated certain disciplines, and saw numerous respected colleagues made redundant on the basis of thin (and sometimes false) data. The results of those actions linger in many ways; the workload of colleagues made redundant that has been assumed by others (what does “redundancy” actually mean?), postgraduate students who remain distressed by the loss of relevant supervisors, and a general, quiet malaise. Also, there is an outstanding question regarding the university’s retention of funds paid into ‘PG’/research accounts to now departed staff from the School of Social Sciences, who undertook teaching additional to their workloads in Hong Kong. Some might be tempted to call this ‘wage theft’, a practice that has been found to be remarkably common across our sector.

The structural reform project continues, but apparently without the gloves-off aggression of 2021. But in the wake of all the talk about structural deficits, it would be nice to have some shared understanding of what we blew the dosh on and how we can avoid doing that again. Junkets? Flash institutes? Marketing? From the perspective of academics working at the coalface, it doesn’t appear that we have been profligate with our time, money, or resources. It seems to us that we do most things on a shoestring, so where did all the money actually go? Did it really just go into our salaries, which is the line we’ve continually been fed, or was it used to ‘pursue impossible’ (a phrase which we understand cost more than a million dollars … for reference, that’s more than 8 level B salaries). As we move into another round of bargaining for a new EBA, it’s also worth considering that the EBA sets minimum expectations, and is not conceived to be the best model for the healthiest and most productive organisational culture. While the previous HR regime focused on compliance with the letter, rather than the spirit, of the EBA—we feel at the expense of concerns about the broader cultural impacts of the change process—we hope that the continuation of the structural reform under a new Director of HR will look and feel different. We also live in hope of a Senate that takes this exigency seriously, because no University benefits from a Senate that doesn’t know, doesn’t care, or doesn’t care to know.

Overall, the COVID years have been a challenging time at UWA specifically and for our sector, more generally. (See here and here for some informed discussion about the broader issues). We were reflecting on this when we received news the other day that applications for ARC Discovery Projects were well down from previous years, especially across the Go8. What could possibly explain this? Here’s a thought: perhaps it’s the consequence of nearly three years without access to study leave and its attendant travel for many—but not all—staff, and an almost complete transformation in the way that work is done, and is required to be done, in universities. Couple that with university managements across the country, who refused to let a good crisis go to waste and used the pandemic and its purported financial calamity as cover to sack countless university staff (while in many cases generating record surpluses—around a billion in the case of USyd). Add to that a political regime targeting the Arts and Humanities and a changing funding landscape, where industry linkage is far more prized than basic discovery, and the question really becomes why would anyone at all invest the time to apply for an ARC DP, especially someone from a field such as English Literature, where the rates of success are vanishingly small and the threat of having the Minister knock back your grant very real.

So … when non-human animals are hurt, they withdraw to lick their wounds and convalesce. Human animals do the same thing, and that’s what we’ve observed at UWA since the change processes last year. At UWAASA committee meetings we’ve recognised this instinct in ourselves, and we’ve also heard any number of colleagues explaining that for their own well-being and self-preservation they’ve had to withdraw, emotionally, from UWA. For those of us who were up close and personal with the harshness that was visited upon our departed colleagues, many are now doing only what is necessary to keep things ticking over for students, and not much more. Nevertheless, your UWAASA committee is – like the UWA academics we represent — always a little bit hopeful, trying to carry the flame for the values of our community and collegial culture. We want to support our members to flourish and thrive, and we take our cue from your interests and concerns. We therefore ask you to let us know what you want voiced. We can facilitate forums, round tables, feedback, and prosecution of issues that academics prefer not to confront as individuals, but we need to know on what you wish to focus. Some issues that have been suggested include:

  • Climate change (should the academic community weigh in on this and what is our role?)
  • Distancing of teaching (the collateral costs of online teaching not captured in any budget)
  • Special considerations (is the proliferation of these beneficial to students’ development?)
  • What unexpected consequences result from the change in sabbatical from an expectation to a “privilege”
  • Many of the intermediate leadership roles have been abolished with the axing of faculties… what does this mean for the development of in house leadership?

Also: the Uniclub has monthly quiz nights and we think a mass participation might be actual fun! More from us on that soon…

As usual, feel free to share this with non-members, while reminding them that representative organisations like UWAASA depend of their existence on people actually joining.

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