NTEU criticise FedUni redundancies, calls for better management

Dr Matthew Abbott led an NTEU protest at Federation University Berwick Campus on April 30 2024, calling for a stop to the then-proposed redundancies by FedUni. Picture: STEWART CHAMBERS.

By Ethan Benedicto

The National Tertiary Education Union warned of inflamed financial problems following Federation University’s decision to go through with their Future Fed initiative.

Announced on Wednesday 19 June, FedUni vice-chancellor and president, Professor Duncan Bentley confirmed that 163 positions across the institution would be made redundant, in a bid to return to a sustainable financial position by 2026.

However, an NTEU statement released later on the same day dictated that the move does not address the core issues that they say are facing the institution – which are declines in enrolment and the general difficulty of retaining students.

Dr Matthew Abbott, president of the NTEU FedUni branch said that “FedUni management is trying to address a revenue issue by cutting costs”.

“The problem is that these mass cuts only stand to exacerbate our revenue problems, making our university a less attractive place to study by undermining the quality of our programs and student support.

“What’s required for management is to create an environment of stability and security in which we can rebuild our institution.

“What’s lacking is a plan for the university to improve the student experience, make us a more attractive place to study – it’s a downward spiral of cuts undermining revenue leading to more cuts, then undermining revenue further,” Dr Abbott said.

In a statement released by FedUni, the proposed redundancies are predominantly in professional and administrative support areas, and that there would be little or no impact expected on teaching and delivery courses.

For Professor Bentley, “these difficult decisions are necessary to ensure that we can continue as a strong and sustainable university”.

“After careful consultation with our staff, it means we can reposition and strengthen investment in the initiatives that help us serve our local communities – the student experience, high-quality teaching and research and an expansion of regional industry partnerships,” he said.

To Dr Abbott however, just because the positions cut were not teaching in nature, “it’s misleading to imply that the removal of our professional staff teams won’t impact our students”.

“Those professional staff do incredibly important work supporting the functioning of the entire university, including by supporting academic staff, but also by directly supporting students.

“It’s wrong to suggest that we can remove, you know, 160 positions from the university and expect there to be no flow and effect – negatively impacting the student experience,” he said.

According to the same FedUni release, of the 163 positions, 42 of those were voluntary redundancies, with the total figure contributing towards the $20 million in annualised cost savings required to bring the university to an operating surplus.

“Making these decisions now means we can ensure we can continue to work with out communities across Ballarat, Berwick, Gippsland, and the Wimmera, to lift tertiary attainment, empower transformation and address skills shortages,” Professor Bentley said.

“Federation has always recognised what the Universities Accord recently called out – regional universities walk a tightrope in offering the most we can to our communities in the face of significant financial challenges.”

For Dr Abbott and the NTEU, these cuts are part of a much larger story, and represent the fifth round of redundancies at the institution in the past five years; according to the NTEU, 64 positions were cut in 2020, 28 were cut in 2021, 44 cut in 2022 and 18 cuts in 2023.

“Chaotic decision-making and distressing levels of job insecurity are taking their toll on staff at our institution, and these negative impacts are simultaneously felt by our students whose learning conditions are undermined as staff working conditions are,” Dr Abbott said.

“This style of management which we’ve had since 2020, in which problems are dealt with via mass redundancies on a regular basis [implies] among staff members that management is not actually carrying out a coherent strategic plan.”

The Universities Accord Final Report released by the Commonwealth Government recognised that the public funding for regional universities needs to be more adequate.

In FedUni’s context, their statement included that the significant changes to university income caused by policy changes on international migration will require a reduction in costs in order to ensure the sustainable delivery of education and training; which in turn was enacted through the proposed redundancies.

“Given that the Federal Government does not fully fund universities and regional universities in particular, any reduction in revenue resulting from adverse policy changes means that we have no choice but to reduce our operating costs,” Professor Bentley said.

There needs to be a change, according to Dr Abbott who said that “staff members feel that the future of our university is under threat”.

“We need to get out of that downward spiral and we need stability and certainty, we need a safe working environment so we can actually look after our students and give them the kind of education and support that they need,” he said.