The Faculty of Engineering announced plans to cut up to 20% of staff in the School of Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) in a move that one University spokesperson described as a long time coming.
Employees now await the decision of Faculty Dean Graham Davies as to which positions will be made redundant.
Professor Davies cited consistent budget deficits from at least 2008 as the reason for staff cuts. He said that whilst student enrolments had increased in 2012, overall enrolment was now less than half the 2002 figure.
The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) expressed concerns that the change would result in class cuts or extra workload for remaining staff.
Dr Sarah Gregson, UNSW Branch President of the NTEU, told Tharunka that University management hasn’t realised the full cost of redundancies. “They look only at the immediate salary ‘savings’ and don’t think about the full range of contributions made by those staff. CSE is a highly regarded School and all the current staff have contributed to that stellar reputation,” she said.
“They also neglect to assess the effects of ‘survivor syndrome’ – the loss of morale and increased stress suffered by those who remain in the School.”
However, Professor Davies said continuous deficits had previously been covered through accumulated funds and research funding. “CSE benefited from a decision of the Commonwealth to enable NICTA funding to be counted as part of [faculty funding]. However the Commonwealth has now removed this funding. Without this funding arrangement, CSE would have been forced to take the measures referred to above much earlier.”
The proposed cuts come at a time when other universities are also proceeding with staff reductions. The University of Sydney is in the process of finalising a series of academic job cuts in an attempt to save $14 million dollars after enrolments failed to meet expectations, whilst the Australian National University has flagged deep cuts to the School of Music.
Student anger at staff cuts culminated in a protest disrupting the University of Sydney senate last week, with three students arrested and claims of aggressive police behaviour.
Around 100 staff and students attended a protest on Thursday against the cuts to CSE. Student Representative Council (SRC) Education Officer David Bailey-McKay told those gathered that the cuts wouldn’t stop there. He said there had already been cuts to other schools and business operations, including the School of History and Philosophy of Science and the Gym. “[Vice-Chancellor] Hilmer’s ruthless efficiency has done in a month what has taken [University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor] Spence 6 months to achieve,” he said.
Dr Gregson said students had a right to be angry about the cuts. “The University never tells them that the School is about to be decimated before they enroll,” she told Tharunka.
Several students said they felt that whilst the Faculty had been sincere in its efforts to communicate with staff and students, it had been put in a difficult position. Others said more effort should have been made to cultivate links with industry. “We’re one of the best schools in Australia, there would certainly be some industry support,” one CSE student told Tharunka, pointing to strong industry links between the Faculty of Law and the legal profession.
Osman Faruqi, from the National Union of Students, said that this wasn’t an issue limited to one faculty or one school, as the University would like students to believe, but was essentially an issue of funding priorities that reached across campus.
Chancellory officials played down the idea that the University was only concerned with lowering costs. “It’s absurd to think that we’re trying to make a bigger profit. We’re a public institution. We have no shareholders,” a University spokeswoman told Tharunka. She said there were plans to increase the number of academic staff in other Schools, highlighting increased demand in the School of Mechanical Engineering.
Organisers of the Thursday protest said it was only the beginning of the campaign against the cuts. Mr Faruqi said he had never seen engineering students so angry. “This definately shows administrators, whether at UNSW, Sydney or ANU, that student activism isn’t dead. Universities needs to listen to what their students are saying,” he told the crowd.