Colleagues outside Australia have asked me to clarify for them the issue of redundancies in Australian universities. This is not easy to do, since different universities have different processes, generally negotiated with their union representatives as part of an individual university’s enterprise bargaining procedures. (Enterprise bargaining involves employees, typically although not necessarily via a trade union, negotiating an industrial agreement which covers salaries, working conditions, redundancy provisions and related issues.) A research paper published in 2004 reported that in 1994 “the issue of redundancy was covered in only 13% of agreements, yet by 1997… redundancy provisions were becoming a feature of many enterprise agreements.”
Redundancies can come about for a variety of reasons. When they are a consequence of performance-related issues the term “redundancy” often is not technically correct; “separation” may be more appropriate. However, “redundancy” can nevertheless be used in counselling sessions with the academic concerned, who may be informed that the actual grounds on which their separation is sought are budget-related, although performance-related issues can occupy a significant part of the discussion. Therefore, from a practical viewpoint it is not really possible to maintain the distinction; we shall use the term “redundancy” instead of “separation.”
Although, in universities, redundancy is a euphemism for getting rid of staff (both academic and non-academic) whom the university no longer wants, or needs, or can afford to keep, in the area of total quality management (TQM) — a field that should not be completely divorced from the experience of managers — “redundancy” and “redundant quality” have quite a different meaning. If a manufacturer’s aim is to produce items as inexpensively as possible, against pre-specified quality criteria, then redundant quality — that is, quality greater than the the specified level — should in theory be avoided, since it entails unduly high costs. On the other hand, redundant staff at an Australian university are often those who, in some respect, do not meet the quality requirements determined by managers.
The newspaper “The Australian” carried an article on April 26 2006 addressing redundancies at Monash University, in Melbourne. The article began: “Under-performing Monash University academics are being pressured to leave as a precursor to the research quality framework, the education union claims.” (The research quality framework, or RQF, was intended to be an Australian version of the UK Research Assessment Exercise, or RAE, but was aborted after the Howard government lost office in November 2007.) Today it is not uncommon for a university to offer academic staff redundancy packages because, in the view of its managers, their performance as researchers is not up to scratch.
The article in “The Australian” in April 2006 went on to quote a trade-union leader’s description of the actions of university managers:
‘They’re going from faculty to faculty and school to school, and they’re talking about how awful the research picture is. [They're saying] they’re going to be offering voluntary separation packages and if you want to get out now while the going’s good then you should take this package and go.’
Indeed, university preparations for the RQF led to a spate of performance-related redundancies during 2006 and 2007. Performance was seldom used officially as a justification for redundancies in the late 1990s, when redundancy provisions were first used in earnest.
Academic staff can also be offered packages because of budgetary shortfalls. This is the situation at the University of Southern Queensland, and can unfortunately be an all too common event in Australian universities as department budgets continue to contract in real terms. For example, in the city of Melbourne during 2007, some 20 academics in mathematics and statistics, working in three universities, were made voluntarily or forcibly redundant in response to a mixture of performance and budgetary issues. Unlike the US, individual academic staff in Australian universities can be made redundant because their department is not generating enough income to meet its salary commitments.
The procedures that universities use to determine and implement redundancies have evolved over time, for example as they learned from mistakes that they made in the past. In the period from 1996 to 1999, when redundancies began to become common in consequence of budget shortfalls during the Howard government’s first term, the dividing line between forced and voluntary redundancies sometimes went like this. A targeted individual would be offered a package, and would be given a time-frame in which to take up the offer. If they declined to accept the package within the given period they would then be subject to procedures for forced redundancy. During the period in which the individual challenged the university they would be kept in employment; but if their challenge was unsuccessful they might have to leave with a smaller payout than the one they were originally offered. (These arrangements would typically be negotiated with the union before the university embarked on the redundancy round.) I’m aware of a case in which several mathematicians challenged their redundancies in court, with union assistance. The court found in their favour — the university had failed to go through proper procedures. The university, learning quickly from its errors, went through the procedures again, this time doing things correctly, and the mathematicians lost their jobs.
I gather that, today, the difference between the sizes of payouts for forced and voluntary redundancies has all but vanished. For staff who have worked for a university for a long period, the packages typically involve between half a year and a full year of salary, often worked out by a formula — for example, a fortnight of their current salary for every year of service, up to a maximum of so many years, plus a cash contribution.
There are many sad stories relating to redundancy. Redundancies can deeply affect the departments concerned, and sometimes the impact is particularly long-lasting. This is especially true in universities that still enjoy a good degree of collegiality, although the increasing introduction of hierarchical management structures is destroying collegiate ties. These new hierarchies have the managerial advantage of weakening the bonds among academic staff that, in the past, led to substantial resistance to the concept of redundancies. However, they also greatly reduce the flow of information from ordinary academic staff to managers, although it is far from clear that this is as widely appreciated by managers as it should be. Of course, limited information leads to unwise and inappropriate management decisions.
A number of academics simply leave a university because they get a sniff of the problems ahead — for example, by being counselled about their research performance. The idiosyncrasies of different managers’ definitions of what constitutes appropriate performance can be rather different from one place to another, making it possible for a scientist who is frowned upon at one institution to be welcomed elsewhere. For example, some managers focus sharply on research income earned; others do not. Of course, in cases where budgetary problems are the main motivators for redundancy, academics endeavour to leave foundering universities for ones that are better resourced.
The majority of those who are made redundant are aged between their late forties and early sixties, and the opportunity for them to find employment again, as academics, is often very slight. There is no parallel outside Australia for the extent, and trauma, of redundancies in universities. The currently accepted practice of dealing with budgetary and performance issues through redundancies does not work in favour of the long-term strength and health of Australian universities.