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Student Voice Heard as Uni Restructure Talks Begin

Student discontent over proposed cost cutting measures was evident at Friday’s meeting between UON representatives and students. Yak’s Lauren Freemantle reports.

A panel of University representatives, including the Vice-Chancellor, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Director of Organisational Change, met with students on Friday. The Q&A session was designed to allay fears surrounding proposed cost-cutting measures affecting staff, a move touted by the University as necessary to preserve its bottom line.

The meeting took place at Callaghan’s Richardson Wing and was streamed online, with around 45 students in attendance. It marked the first of five drop-in sessions led by the University after a push by UON’s student union, UNSA, giving a platform for students to become more involved in the University’s decision making processes.

Previous consultation was sought by UON in October 2020. Professor Mark Hoffman emailed students inviting them to make submissions about a restructure, currently underway, which sees the University’s five Schools amalgamated into three Colleges.

In March this year, the Vice-Chancellor provided an update on staffing, releasing this report and inviting students to email through their responses. At the meeting, it was revealed the University has received 2500 submissions on the changes, most sent by staff or external stakeholders and 70 written by students.

It was evident students are concerned about a range of degree programs being altered. The panel was questioned over the viability of Biology in particular, after three biology majors were consolidated into a single 80-unit major in 2020. The teaching quality of Nursing was also a point of contention, with 10 full-time equivalent academic roles set to be cut from the School of Nursing and Midwifery.

A few snickers from the audience were heard as students were encouraged to contact UON Counselling if they felt distressed by the changes proposed.

A disgruntled Communication Honours student shared his perspective with College of Human and Social Futures Professor John Fischetti. The student said while undertaking the Bachelor of Communication, his course structure switched, rendering the program confusing and less relevant than he felt it was at the beginning. Professor Fischetti admitted there had been teething problems during the transition which are now being resolved and refine, and invited the student to meet with him to discuss the issue further.

But the real hot-button topic of the meeting surrounded the Vice-Chancellor’s salary, which according to the President of UNSA, sits close to $1 million (see page 91 of the 2019 Annual Report). An uncomfortable vibe rolled through the air as Professor Zelinsky defended a University decision not to deduct funds from his own salary. The Vice-Chancellor cited the integrity of his employment contract and a previous staff vote on the matter as justification for the move.

While 120 jobs are at risk at UON, Professor Zelinsky compared it to a 13% overall staff slashing at the University of New England. A student then questioned why he was comparing UON’s situation to that of other Universities when other Vice-Chancellors are taking pay cuts. Professor Zelinsky responded that he does not take a bonus, which is the amount other Vice-Chancellors are foregoing.

The entire restructure was presented as a way to deliver quality over quantity, with less electives and greater focus on graduate employability skills. But the University’s financial woes were made apparent from a graph displaying greater expenditure than income.

Students were informed that for every dollar the University receives, it spends $1.06, prompting the need to save about $35 million to avoid a permanent downward trajectory. The situation is exacerbated, students were told, by a lack of Federal Government funding in the 2021 Budget to fill the gap left by overseas student revenue, with borders forecast to remain shut well into 2022. This in turn creates a ‘pipeline’ effect whereby missing revenue flows on for three to four years.

The Q&A session was concluded after an hour and a half with more questions remaining.

While the official submission window has closed, there will be more consultation sessions to come, with dates and times not yet announced. Interested students should monitor their emails for updates.

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Feature Image by Lauren Freemantle, Yak Staff Writer

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