OP-ED: Staff are struggling at USyd. Why should students care?

Staff working conditions are student's learning conditions

USyd NTEU. Source: Green Left Weekly.

Last Friday afternoon, at the end of a long week, I decided to blow off a little steam by sharing a few frustrations with the world on Twitter. While I love the teaching and research that I get to do, and the people I get to do it with, there’s some stuff going on here that drives me nuts.

Once I got started, it was hard to stop. 19 tweets later, I realised I was probably sounding like a crazy person, so I stopped. But I could have written 19 more…

In my position as Branch President of the National Tertiary Education Union, I see the way that staff across the University – both academics and professional staff – are being driven to despair by a toxic combination of insecure work, workload intensification, and corporatisation.

Why should students care? Well, staff working conditions are your learning conditions. And if you read on, it should hopefully become apparent how your experience as a student is being changed for the worse by the treatment of the staff who support you.

Insecure Work

For way too many staff, work at this University is insecure.

For some, insecurity is a result of never-ending workplace restructuring initiated by university management.

Over the last couple of years, hundreds of professional staff in areas like the Faculty of Science and Student Administrative Services have been restructured. Right now, staff in various services are being restructured as part of the ‘Sydney Operating Model’ changes. In particular, staff on university service desks of ICT, Finance, Campus Infrastructure, and Human Resources are facing a plan to merge those service desks that proposes redundancies and deskilled jobs.

These changes are incredibly distressing for staff. Not only because they want to keep their jobs. But because in each case, it seems that the managers dreaming up some of these changes just don’t understand or appreciate the work that staff perform, or respect their skills. Working lives are disrupted and made less secure in the service of changes that simply don’t make things better.

For others, insecurity is a result of casual and fixed-term contracts. The University’s recent submission to the Workplace Gender Equity Agency reported that last year around 6000 people were employed by the University on casual contracts. In some cases, that work might have been genuinely ‘casual’. But in far too many cases, that’s people who provide vital services to students or staff for months and years at a time, not to mention sessional lecturers and tutors who have been teaching the same classes for similar periods. Around a quarter of all the teaching hours at Sydney Uni are performed by staff on insecure, casual contracts.

Workload Intensification

Staff at this place are increasingly stressed out, not only because of job insecurity but because of workload intensification.

For professional staff, we see this in things like the unnecessary requirement that large teams come to work over the Christmas shutdown. And we see it in the corporate-style surveillance systems that have recently been introduced for staff in the Student Centre, whose every minute is now recorded and coded by a new Cisco system no doubt purchased at great expense.

For academics, work associated with the developing and implementing the new curriculum has often been piled on top of already bulging workloads. Workload models frequently fail to allocate realistic amounts of time to early career academics who are writing new lectures and trying to provide useful feedback to students on their assignments. Some are considering going part-time just to make their teaching manageable and to find a little time (on their own dime) for research.


Underlying job insecurity and workload intensification is the increasing corporatisation of university management. The university as a ‘business’, where decisions about everything from curriculum to staff desk-space are decided via the criteria of profit and loss.

Corporatisation drives the obsessions with restructuring and extracting more and more work from staff. It is also reflected in the ways that the University presents itself to the world, and the way decisions are made. To give a few examples:

  • staff who are going through a ‘change management’ process which proposes over a dozen redundancies came to work a couple of weeks ago to find posters installed in their workplace telling them to “Be positive in the face of change”. They got desk calendars too.
  • management have also just rolled out a new corporate app to help managers ‘assist’ staff who are dealing with ‘change fatigue’. (It probably doesn’t tell them to join their union!)
  • our University’s spend on external consultants and contractors is up from $42.3 million in 2013 to $96.2 million in 2017.
  • the VC is ‘consulting’ staff about a MoU he plans to give to the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation about the terms of any partnership. But there will be no vote about this MoU at Faculty or Academic Board.

Taking a Stand for the University We Want

There’s only one thing standing in the way of all this — our willingness to act together in union. Our collective institutions – our unions and representative councils – are crucial to that effort.

Last year, the NTEU negotiated a new Enterprise Agreement that include new rights on matters like workplace change, workload, and more. And we’re already starting to see the benefits of this. Professional staff are using their workplace rights to start pushing back against proposed changes, and academic staff are starting to organise Faculty-by-Faculty to renegotiate the way their workloads are calculated and allocated.

But it’s also vital that we support one another in these efforts, and show senior management that when they take on one of us, they’re taking on all of us.

That’s why we’re holding a rally, starting at Fisher Library at 1pm on Weds October 3. We’ll be walking down to the new Administration Building to make some noise and show our solidarity with staff whose jobs are on the line … and we’d love you to join us!

Kurt is an Associate Professor of Urban Geography in the School of Geosciences, and President of the University of Sydney branch of the National Tertiary Education Union