James Cook University (JCU) intends to reduce professional staff jobs by 10 per cent in a widely criticised proposal, citing declining student enrolments as the reason for the cuts.
The Professional Services Change Proposal released yesterday will see 130 out of 1313 professional roles axed at the University, including 78 current staff jobs and 52 unfilled positions.
“This will be devastating to those people who have found out that their position is proposed to be made redundant. It is likewise devastating to those colleagues who remain behind who face the double whammy of losing friends and colleagues and having to pick up the work that is inevitably left behind,” said NTEU Queensland Secretary Michael McNally.
“It’s not a great way for a new Vice-Chancellor to introduce himself to staff. I don’t think there is a coincidence that this restructure is taking place while we are bargaining,” McNally said.
Professor Simon Biggs was appointed as the new JCU Vice-Chancellor last year, and began his term in February this year.
Prior to becoming Vice-Chancellor, he was the Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Western Australia (UWA), where he was involved in a highly controversial restructure to the School of Social Sciences that succeeded in abolishing the discipline of Anthropology and Sociology.
Although the abolishment of the discipline was initially justified by UWA management on the grounds of a 77 per cent drop in student enrolments, it was later revealed that this figure had overestimated the decline in enrolments.
“Why is the plan always to cut more staff? Where is the plan to attract more students?” McNally said.
“I am not sure how this cutting mentality will turn around the performance of James Cook University.” he said.
In a statement to staff, Professor Biggs said that the Change Proposal aims to improve the “effectiveness, efficiency and structural alignment” of professional and technical core services across JCU.
“The income of universities is directly linked to the number of students, and our domestic student numbers have been declining over recent years, leading us to an unsustainable operating budget,” Biggs said.
According to JCU’s annual reports dating back over the last five years, total student enrolments have remained relatively steady. Its most recent annual report records the highest decrease in enrolments from 21,227 in 2020 to 20,306 in 2021, which only represents a 4.3 per cent drop.
“JCU staff have been here before. The continual rounds of redundancies, both voluntary and forced, have not improved the ability of James Cook University to attract students, but management still pay themselves huge salaries. Staff always have to pay the price for poor management,” said NTEU JCU Branch Committee Bronwen Forster.
“I’ve been here for twenty years and they have always cried poor. I don’t believe them anymore,” Forster said.
“They could make significant cost savings in other areas like travel and building fancy infrastructure so they don’t have to cut their best asset – their staff,” she said.
In 2021, JCU returned a surplus of $25,879.
The cuts also occur against the backdrop of ongoing enterprise agreement negotiations between the University and the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), who are fighting for a decent salary increase, reasonable workloads, and better job security.
They were also announced a week after the NTEU JCU Branch voted to escalate industrial action, voting in favour of applying for a protection action ballot order.