ACT News

Industrial relations nightmare at ANU

The once proud School of Politics and International Relations at the Australian National University has descended into an industrial relations nightmare.

Staff and students have reported a toxic culture of bullying and high levels of dysfunction. Staff have been forced to accept unprecedented workloads and an exodus of some of the school’s most accomplished and esteemed academics has resulted. Women in particular feel targeted within a school where embarrassingly few hold senior positions and female academics undertake the bulk of the teaching workload.

Education union secretary Stephen Darwin says complaints have been made.
Education union secretary Stephen Darwin says complaints have been made. Photo: Rohan Thomson

Meanwhile, an investigation by The Canberra Times has found that at least seven formal complaints have been laid against senior members of staff and two Comcare cases have been awarded to two academics who suffered psychological damage during their time at the school at the hands of one senior manager.

When asked to comment on the workplace crisis within the school, a spokeswoman for vice-chancellor Ian Young said the university was investigating “a range of complex staffing and management issues”, but could not comment further, citing privacy issues and the fact investigations were ongoing.

Professor Young knows first hand of the discontent within the school, having spoken with some of the affected staff members directly in recent months.

The complaints have largely centred around vulgar language and abuse and the way in which staff have been pressured to take on additional workloads – in some cases outside their areas of expertise, in conflict with their research responsibilities and at odds with the enterprise agreement.

So serious was the situation that a senior counsellor requested eight members of staff meet in the presence of the human resources manager earlier this year to discuss the spate of complaints.

No formal action has as yet been taken by the school to address these concerns directly.

Underlying tensions have been exacerbated by budget cuts and staff workload increases as the school has been forced to share in $1.4 million worth of budget cuts within the College of Arts and Social Sciences.

Long considered one of the jewels in the ANU’s crown with a proven track record in international publications, citations and coveted research funding, the school has also endured an exodus of some of its most accomplished staff.

At least 11 academics have left in the past 12 months – six relocated to other universities, two relocated to other areas within the ANU and three retired or taken early retirement.

Meanwhile, 10 courses in the Political Science and International Relations majors have been disestablished and the school has undergone a systematic cultural change from the qualitative Australian approach to a more American quantitative approach.

The first public indication of the problems mounting within the school occurred last year when students protested against an attempt by the College of Social Sciences to phase out small tutorials in favour of large interactive workshops and forums.

The move was to achieve cost-cutting but student outrage forced a formal review by deputy vice-chancellor Marnie Hughes-Warrington, with management opting to trial forums among a smaller number of courses.

Meanwhile, the staff shortage has meant sessional instructors – some without conferred PhDs – have been brought in to teach politics and international relations courses while management undertakes a recruitment drive.

According to an internal draft business plan for the school for 2014-16 – written by acting head of school Professor Ian McAllister while Professor Jeffery Karp is on extended sick leave – the school faces several “challenges”.

Noting the school’s proud history of research and international citations, Professor McAllister conceded there had been “continuous turnover of staff in recent years”.

There was “urgent need to recruit staff at higher levels” and recognition of a lack of women in senior positions.

A number of the bullying claims centre on women, the bulk of whom already carry the biggest teaching loads. Concerns have been raised by female staff that they have been further asked to increase their teaching workloads at the expense of their research output, while both male and female academics have endured direct criticism or career setbacks for seeking to balance their work with their family responsibilities.

Of 27 academic staff in place in March only 12 were women, and of the six most senior staff only one was female and this was only because her Centre for European Studies had been subsumed within the school.

The document noted that of the eight appointments made in the last 12 months, three were women, while a further two job offers were rejected by female academics.

The lack of gender diversity within the school has been a longstanding issue and was highlighted by a 2012 ANU report, Women’s Advancement in Australian Political Science, which found the ANU had the second lowest proportion of female academics of all Group of Eight universities.

Women constituted just 21.7 per cent of political science academics at the ANU, compared with 47.3 per cent at the University of Melbourne, which topped the list.

The report found female academics in political science experienced a “chilly” working environment in which an adversarial, antagonistic and disrespectful culture prevailed. One of the report authors is Emeritus Professor Marian Sawer, who is based within the school.

The draft plan also noted more mechanical issues in staffing around the International Relations units, which needed to ensure students would be able to complete the requisite units for their degrees.

“Major changes to the IR degree have been made since 2010, which have strengthened the degree, though imbalance across compulsory and core courses in the IR and politics (sic) needs to be re-examined.” To that ends a three-year teaching plan is recommended to enable students to plan their courses well in advance and with certainty they can complete degree requirements.

The school also needed to do more to attract PhD students and “make a concerted effort to retain honours and PhD students” in light of less than a handful of enrolments this year and a reportedly high number of applications for transfers out of the school.

To compound its financial problems, the school has experienced a substantial reduction in its Higher Education Research Data Collection points, a government reporting requirement which collates research income and publications and is used as a measure to calculate future government and performance funding.

Of the more than 100 HERDC points earned by the school in 2012, more than 75 per cent were earned by staff who have now left. This suggests the school's rankings will plummet, particularly given newly recruited replacement staff are junior academics.

The National Tertiary Education Union said the college was indeed in crisis.

ACT Division secretary Stephen Darwin said the union had been supporting “a significant number of aggrieved members in the School of Politics and International Relations over the last 12 months”.

“This has resulted in a range of serious grievances being raised about inappropriate behaviour, unreasonable or inequitable treatment, excessive teaching demands and refusals to approve legitimate research activities.”

Workloads are believed to have doubled for some academics over the past two years. In 2012 some staff were teaching two undergraduate courses a year, doing two tutorials for each class and marking for 20 students per class. Now some are expected to teach three undergraduate courses a year, doing three to four tutorials and marking for up to 60-80 students per class. Additionally some are expected to teach honours or master classes.

Rather than slate home the issues to individual senior staff members, Mr Darwin said the “apparent dysfunction in the school is a direct consequence of the relentless budget cuts that are affecting this and many other teaching areas at ANU’’.

He blamed relentless demand for a future budget surplus from vice-chancellor Ian Young for forcing heavy across-the-board cuts, and while Politics and International Relations was at a crisis point, Mr Darwin said similar patterns of dysfunction were emerging elsewhere.

“The cost of this obsession is now becoming increasingly apparent to the university community, including in the type of situation we have seen in this school.

“These pressures are resulting across the university in excessive workloads, elevating workplace conflict, high staff turnover, cuts to key courses, unfilled positions and the loss of research students.”

He also noted the union was following several serious performance problems with contractors and consultants who were being used in a desperate attempt to plug gaps left by the continuing job losses across campus.

But some of the affected staff have condemned the union’s lack of clout in bringing a resolution to the matter, questioning why a group claim has not been filed with Fair Work Australia.

They believe the level of dysfunction and the number and serious nature of the allegations within the school warrant an external investigation.