Hundreds at Sydney University to learn their fate next week

The university says it needs to make the cuts to fund upgrades to its buildings and IT network. Flickr/Smiley Man with a Hat

Plans by the University of Sydney to post hundreds of letters to staff on a redundancy hit list on Monday afternoon are likely to go ahead after a final round of fractious meetings this afternoon.

The list of 340 names is likely to include about 40 from the Arts Faculty, the biggest on campus, whose teaching staff overwhelmingly endorsed a motion of no confidence in the Vice-Chancellor, Michael Spence, at a lively meeting on Wednesday.

Senior members of the faculty who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the university this afternoon declined to provide a breakdown of names or numbers because it was concerned that the matter could be referred to Fair Work, the national workplace relations tribunal, before Monday.

The 340 staff who will be affected across all 16 faculties at the university will be divided almost evenly between teaching and general staff, the university has said. Among the former, only those who have published at least four “research outputs” in three years are deemed safe.

In a meeting between the Law Faculty Dean, Gillian Triggs, and her staff, Professor Triggs said that she had managed to save all but three of 23 people from the pool of candidates in the faculty, one lecturer who was present said. “At the same time she told us that enrolments in law would increase by 30% this year,” he said. “It was amazing.”

Long-standing staff in the Arts Faculty accused Dr Spence of forcing the cuts through over the summer vacation - when few staff were on campus - to fund a handful of lavish building projects, such as a $385 million obesity centre that will be completed in 2014.

Dr Spence announced the cuts in an emailed video briefing in late November. He said costs would be cut by 7.5 per cent ($25 million saved from the loss of about 150 academic staff, and $28 million from cutting about 190 general staff).

A spokesman for the university said that he could not comment on negotiations between the university and the National Tertiary Education Union, which ended at 5pm today. But he said that there had been “an extensive period of consultation with staff”.

The university had a backlog of maintenance and repairs amounting to $385m, he said, and “some of this cannot be deferred because of work, health and safety requirements. Also the university has legislative requirements to proceed with major infrastructure projects which have Federal government funding.”

More than 80 staff supported the no-confidence motion against Dr Spence, said Associate Professor Jake Lynch, the Director of the university’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, who was partly responsible for the motion.

“No one voted against it, seven abstained and I’d put the number of people who supported it at 80 or so,” he said. “It was a very lively meeting … I would say now that [the Vice-Chancellor] risks appearing isolated.”

A senior academic who has been involved in negotiations over the cuts said that the obesity centre was just one item in a vast outlay of extravagant projects to which the university had overcommitted.

“There’s also the $56m ‘IT upgrade’, which basically just means a failed piece of software that’s supposed to aid the interface between students and the university,” he said.

“There are another couple of building projects on top of that - a physics building and a new business school building. You’re looking at not far short of $1 billion worth of commitment.” The university had taken on most of that three years ago, when the forecast for growth in international student income had been optimistically set at 9% per year. The target had not been met.

Professor Lynch acknowledged that the university needed to invest in capital expenditure. But he said there were “more pressing concerns, more pressing measures that should be taken to fix the decaying buildings all over campus. They don’t generate the same headlines as a whizzbang shiny new obesity centre, but nonetheless they need to be done.”

He said that the consultation with staff had taken place over summer, “when effectively due process is suspended because committees don’t meet. An attempt has been made to bypass due process and accountability. Whenever it has been put to people, they’ve rejected it.”

The university has previously said that the cuts are necessary to account for a decrease in annual growth in student income - from the average of 9.6% between 2005 and 2010, to “only 6.99%” for 2012.