University students angry at cuts to academic staff | Newcastle Herald

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UNIVERSITY of Newcastle students are concerned the institution’s restructure and subsequent staff job cuts could “greatly degrade” the quality of their education. University of Newcastle Students’ Association (UNSA) president Luka Harrison said there was “a lot of anger” among students about respected academic staff facing job losses and the lack of adequate consultation, plus concerns about potential impact on studies. “Outside the concern that a lot of the staff they respect are going to lose their jobs, for a lot of them it’s about the fact that realistically the quality of their education is going to be degraded significantly by these cuts,” Mr Harrison said. “They’re going to have less choice, less experienced lecturers and the lecturers and other academic staff are going to have to be working a lot harder because they have to be doing more because there are less staff. “It’s going to greatly degrade the quality of our education. I think that’s the only realistic outcome when you cut that amount of staff and resources from a university.” IN OTHER NEWS: Vice Chancellor Alex Zelinsky said UON’s restructure would improve the organisation and achieve a “better ongoing experience for students”. “We are committed to a continued outstanding student experience supported by excellent academic and research teams, where strong work integrated learning opportunities are plentiful, and where a vibrant campus experience is prioritised,” Professor Zelinsky said. “All student concerns are taken seriously and dealt with directly and we will be keeping in touch with student representatives ongoing to ensure their time at the university remains the best it can be.” Advanced mathematics student Amelia and advanced psychological science student Bridget – who requested their last names not be used – said the quality of their time at UON was tied to their teachers. “If the restructure goes ahead, half of the senior mathematics staff will be cut,” Amelia said. “It’s hard to know what the school of mathematics will look like if that happens….positions are being removed from nearly every school, so everyone will lose lecturers from some subject of theirs. “And it’s not only the removal of lecturers that affects us, the decimation of faculty demoralises everyone who remains. ” Bridget said time studying at three universities had shown her “senior academic staff are the heart and soul of universities”. “The high quality education they provide shapes student experience and outcomes in powerful ways,” she said. “I do not remember how flashy the architecture was at each of my universities, but I do remember how the professors inspired hard work and instilled in me a love of learning. “It’s a no brainer: jettisoning senior academics in favour of less skilled and cheaper staff will reduce the value of our degrees, undermine our future employability and damage the university’s reputation as a world class university. “Universities have stakeholders not shareholders, so why are we prioritising large surpluses at such costs to our people? “I was distressed to learn that staff who I know are outstanding and inspiring educators will be cut and I am really angry that I will lose them.” Mr Harrison said UON was in a unique position because it served a “very specific region that no-one else really is there for”. Many students come from low socio economic backgrounds or are the first in their family to attend university. “These changes really are not good enough and are letting down the wider Hunter community, as well as students and staff,” he said. “The university is quite proud of its history of producing graduates that stay within the Hunter region and contribute to the Hunter region. “Our region is going to suffer terribly if the quality of that education that UON graduates receive drops in its standard.” Amelia said students should be able to receive a “world class education at an institution that is part of our region”. “Cutting senior staff would undermine the quality of our education,” she said. “I know of people who would not have attended university if not for the opportunity UON provided them, and who have become brilliant doctors and scientists through what they learned here.” Bridget said the proposed changes “undermine our responsibility as a regional university to provide high quality education to local and surrounding populations”. “Not everyone can afford to relocate to or secure a position at other universities, so they come here,” she said. “If UON is serious about attracting bright, ambitious students and future alumni, and countering the brain-drain to other more ‘prestigious’ universities, then firing its most senior academics is hardly the way to do it.” As previously reported, UON has already launched an early retirement scheme and completed a course optimisation program that saw 530 subjects consolidated or discontinued, eight undergraduate degree and 14 postgraduate degree programs discontinued and four postgraduate degree programs in creative industries suspended. Amelia said this program was “disappointing”. “Less popular” subjects and programs are essential,” she said. “If we don’t teach them, we lose part of the gamut that makes up our region’s full range of abilities, and we lose a facet of what makes our university a centre of learning and research.” UON has merged its five faculties into three colleges and is currently making changes to its divisions and schools. Chief financial officer Paula Johnston told staff last week that UON’s expenditure had been increasing in recent years at a “steeper rate” than revenue. She said the gap between income and expenditure was projected to grow from $27.5 million in 2020 to $37.8 million in 2021 and $48 million in 2022. UON has set a “savings target” of $35 million next year. Professor Zelinsky said this week the restructure – which will potentially affect 400 permanent staff and include 120 job cuts – was necessary to make UON “efficient, effective and sustainable”. National Tertiary Education Union Newcastle branch president Dan Conway said the NTEU did not believe UON was in a financial crisis. The NTEU said UON is in surplus, has accrued more than $300 million in surpluses since 2015 and holds more than $600 million in cash and investments. The NTEU has collected more than 2820 signatures in three days on its petition opposing the restructure. Mr Harrison said he too was “disappointed” with how UON had presented its finances. “I think the university is in a stable enough position to weather the current economic conditions and has a responsibility to the community, to the region and to its staff to do so,” he said. UNSA has emailed students encouraging them to sign the NTEU petition. “I think students should have a say in the decisions the university is making, especially when those decisions are this big and students are being dragged further into debt every year as fees seem to endlessly go up and the returns for those fees are diminishing all the time,” he said. “I think it’s important students stand up and they fight for their education. If we do it and the staff don’t do it then no-one else will.” Mr Harrison said moving forward, UON had “a responsibility to be more proactive in their consultation with students”. “There should be more structured, formal forums for students to voice their concerns and give any feedback when there is going to be any changes to the university that are going to be this big.” Amelia said there had been no direct consultation with students. “We were told about the change process and the consultation period after the decisions were made and shortly before the consultation period was to finish,” she said. “We’ve received no acknowledgement or response to the letters we’ve sent.” Bridget said it was “troubling” students only received one email about the proposed changes, just before the Easter break. “The email linked to another document, but the email itself did not explicitly mention staff cuts, only staffing changes,” she said. “It was full of spin, saying that the restructure was all for students’ benefit.” Our journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the community. 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