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Hundreds of submissions received as UTAS parliamentary inquiry heats up

Academics and members of the community are fiercely pushing back on UTAS’ relocation plans to Hobart CBD, academic freedom, job losses and governance structure.

Over 140 submissions have been received as part of an ongoing parliamentary inquiry into the University of Tasmania (UTAS) to investigate its proposed relocation of the University’s historic Sandy Bay campus to Hobart’s CBD, along with the institution’s academic freedom and governance. 

Academic freedom and governance a sticking point

Academic freedom and UTAS’ governance structure are amongst the focuses of the inquiry. Academic staff at the University are raising serious concerns about the governance structure at UTAS’ university council and Academic Senate, with many saying that a corporate model detached from academia risks eroding academic freedom. 

In another submission, UTAS Emeritus Professor Aynsley Kellow told the inquiry that UTAS’ governance model was broken, with “appointments from outside the University who frequently have achieved a Professorial appointment by virtue of applying for an administrative position rather than academic excellence”. 

This, for Kellow, creates a situation where administrators with “little institutional knowledge” are promoted to the upper echelons of university management, leading to “poor” decisions such as the Hobart CBD relocation plan. 

Similarly, a joint submission signed by five Distinguished Science Professors at the University expressed concern that the majority of UTAS’ University Council was composed of those with backgrounds outside of higher education, with only a few with “expertise in teaching and research”. 

This leads to a “self-perpetuating” body with “appointees being known to existing members and coming from a small elite in the community”. According to the submission, this presents a significant risk that conflicts of interest may arise, with University executives and Council members themselves voting for “payment for their services without declaration of a conflict”. 

The submission stated that UTAS’ governance structure needs serious change to allow academics a say rather than being dominated by external interests, whose distance alienates members of the university community. 

Significant job losses attracts fierce criticism 

In his submission to the inquiry, Macquarie University’s noted economist Professor James Guthrie said that 1,600 jobs were lost between 2019 and 2021 at UTAS. This was accompanied by a significant $170 million net surplus and a salary just shy of $1 million for UTAS Vice-Chancellor Rufus Black. Additionally, six executives in UTAS’ Academic Senate earn more than the Tasmanian Premier, who is paid approximately $300,000 a year. 

In scathing comments, Guthrie condemned UTAS management for mishandling the university and eroding academics’ trust in the institution. 

“This unethical behaviour includes the bullying and intimidation of critics, wage theft, an overpaid cadre of senior executives, and the destruction of disciplines,” Guthrie submitted. 

“I understand that at this university, many well-qualified and high-achieving academics and professional staff have left or suffered burnout and the psychological trauma of being endlessly ‘restructured’ and surveilled by managers who appear to have no understanding or appreciation of the damage they are causing.” 

Echoing Guthrie’s criticism, a joint letter signed by 41 academics from UTAS accuses the University of displaying “contempt for academic staff” and a tendency to “view any staff who challenge managerial decisions or express dissenting opinions as problems or hindrances to be dealt with accordingly”. 

The root of UTAS’ problems, according to the joint letter, is a “dysfunctional administration mired in bureaucratic and convoluted top-down processes” due to recent efforts to centralise decision-making. 

“The current situation can only be remedied by significant changes to the legislated governance and structure of accountability within the institution,” they said. 

Opposition to relocation into Hobart CBD 

Visualisation of proposed Hobart CBD campus for the University of Tasmania. Source: The University of Tasmania. 

Submissions from academics and members of the community overwhelmingly condemned UTAS’ plans to relocate its Sandy Bay campus to Hobart CBD, with criticism honing on the fragmented nature of the proposal. When complete, UTAS will be housed in ten standalone buildings along Melville and Campbell Streets.

In contrast, UTAS’ Sandy Bay campus is highly centralised, with the University surrounded by a number of green courtyards, sporting ovals in close proximity to the water. This means that most of the Sandy Bay campus’ green surroundings will be lost as UTAS is absorbed into Hobart’s city centre.

Academics fear that the move will severely diminish in-person interactions and teaching quality at UTAS, with the joint letter from the 41 academics stating that the masterplan, “designed without academic office space or lecture theatres”, will lead to a “much-reduced institution that is primarily virtual rather than face-to-face”. 

In its submission, the Tasmanian division of the NTEU condemned UTAS’ consultation process for the move, saying that management “studiously ignore[d] any critical comments” and proceeded to the original plan. The lack of traditional lecture theatres in the plan, for the NTEU, demonstrated a “shift away from face-to-face teaching”, citing the Law Society of Tasmania’s criticism of UTAS’ abolition of in-person lectures as an example. 

“The various behaviours described above are demonstrably inconsistent with the ideals of accountable executive, fiscal and academic decision making,” the union said. “Stronger oversight of the decisions and actions undertaken by UTAS management is necessary.”

The Tasmanian Legislative Council’s Inquiry into the University of Tasmania continues.