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UNSW Pres. Ian Jacobs Announces Staff Cuts, Restructuring, in Light of COVID-19

A photograph of UNSW lawn and the front of UNSW library. It is a clear day; there are people sitting on the grass.

by Axel-Nathaniel Rose

On the 15th of July Vice Chancellor and President Ian Jacobs wrote to the staff body of UNSW announcing further plans for the University in light of COVID-19.

He refers to ‘the impact[s] of COVID-19’ as ‘hard, unexpected and broad ranging’, and notes that much is still unknown; UNSW’s response to the pandemic is an unfolding work in progress. However, he acknowledges that some decisions will be ‘unwelcome’, but others ‘will enable us to innovate and respond effectively to the challenges of a dramatically changed world’.

The key aspect of this is making redundant 493 full-time equivalent staff in 2021. A gap of $370 million has been reduced through ‘non-people savings and the use of financial reserves and borrowings’, with the remaining $75 million to be accounted for by staff cuts. ‘Full-time equivalent’ here means that part-time workers may also lose jobs, but adding up to the monetary equivalent of one full-time colleague. This follows the loss of 155 casual workers when the pandemic began.

The 2020 financial gap of more than $300 million has been amended without job losses, but have been taken as necessary for the year ahead. Jacobs cites ‘[r]educed international student numbers in 2020 and ongoing education market uncertainty’ as the key factors.

A voluntary redundancy program, in which staff will be given the opportunity to quit rather than being dismissed, began on the 15th and will close on the 31st of July.

If enough staff do not leave of their own accord, compulsory redundancies will begin in late August. All affected staff (including those losing team-members, subordinates, etc.) will be notified by November.

The other large change announced is the compression of eight faculties to six:

    • Medicine and Health – Dean Vlado Perkovic;

    • Science and Environment – Dean Emma Johnston;

    • Engineering and Technology – Acting Dean Stephen Foster;

    • Business – Dean Chris Styles;

    • Law and Justice – Acting Dean Andrew Lynch; and 

    • Arts, Architecture and Design – Dean Claire Annesley.

This will merge Built Environment, Art and Design, and Arts and Social Science, which Jacobs presents as ‘an important statement of the commitment of UNSW to these disciplines’. The Schools of Built Environment and Art and Design will be merged under Arts and Social Sciences.

The eight executive divisions will similarly be reduced from eight to six.

    • Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion – Deputy Vice Chancellor (‘DVC’) Eileen Baldry;

    • Academic and Student Life – DVC Merlin Crossley;

    • Research and Enterprise – DVC Nick Fisk;

    • Planning and Assurance – DVC George Williams;

    • External Engagement – VP Fiona Docherty; and

    • Operations – VP Andrew Walters

Alongside these drastic changes, Jacobs says that there is a renewed commitment to ‘student experience’, represented by the new ‘Academic and Student Life’ division, which will encompass ‘recruitment, learning and teaching, and student support, within a single end-to-end team focused on student life’.

Other changes include

    • a 25% reduction in the Senior Leadership team;

    • renewed focus on a ‘university to business’ approach;

    • flexible work options for students and staff, which will be phased in, pursuing both well-being and productivity; and

    • a ‘rethinking’ of physical and digital environments.

The loss of jobs has been broadly reported on and met with strong responses. ‘Hundreds of staff livelihoods are at stake,’ said UNSW Student Representative Council Education Officer, Shovan Bhattarai, calling for staff and students to protest these changes. ‘Cutting staff means there will be fewer tutors and lecturers to teach students, classes will be packed, courses streamlined, and workloads increased,’ stressing that, ‘[academic] staff are the lifeblood of our education.’

She has expressed scepticism as to Jacobs’s claim that UNSW can not manage without job cuts due to past reports on UNSW’s reserves, assets, investments, and the surplus generated by the trimester system. Additionally, she believes that management salaries are excessive when contrasted with staff cuts. Jacobs took a 20% salary reduction when the pandemic’s financial impacts began to unfold, as was requested of all staff. 

The NTEU (National Tertiary Education Union) refers to this ‘devastating news’ as a result of the Federal Government not extending JobKeeper to university staff, and intends to fight the decision ‘with all means at our disposal’.