The University of Canberra will overhaul its controversial assistant professor scheme following an independent review but has pushed back against warnings to reduce teaching workloads.
The highly-anticipated final report into the program was released to The Canberra Times late on Tuesday, following what has been described as a "tense" meeting between assistant professors and management over the future of the scheme.
Unique to Australia but similar to models in the US, it's designed to fast-track academic promotions by halving the usual path to the role of associate professor down to seven years. But on campus it's known as the seven year probation or "the burn or churn".
Last year, fears the program was exploiting junior academics to boost research rankings boiled over into the university's first strike in a decade as senior professors and the National Tertiary Education Union called for its end.
Once they're in, assistant professors warn "there's no way out" from a high stakes series of reviews that end in either promotion or termination. Many current or former academics have spoken out about the scheme's toll on their health, saying they felt pressured to pump out research to avoid early dismissal while struggling under "superhuman" teaching loads.
Outgoing vice-chancellor Deep Saini has accepted three of the review's four major recommendations and vowed to kick-start their implementation before he leaves UC on December 20 to take the reigns at a Canadian university.
The plan will be "co-designed" with assistant professors and delivered on his desk by December 10. But the union warns the sun is setting fast on a deal struck during enterprise bargaining that will allow a majority of assistant professors to opt out of the scheme by January 3.
On Tuesday, Professor Saini denied claims which were echoed in the review, about heavy workloads or a research advantage to progression.
Since the scheme was introduced under his predecessor Stephen Parker in 2010, assistant professors have grown to make up almost a quarter of UC's academic workforce. Some spoke of the career advantages of the scheme, reporting it was why they chose the university in the first place, and the review noted that the acceleration on offer perhaps made up for the program's inherent job insecurity.
But it also found that, while new hires were widely put on the scheme as a "default", support varied across faculties. In some areas, the expert panel noted it "fell well below" the standard set by UC's own policies and could create "significant distress".
Heavy teaching loads were the most consistent complaint heard by reviewers among assistant professors at UC, where it appeared "that the university's workload model is clearly not implemented uniformly across faculties".
"The panel recommends [assistant professors] be given substantially lower teaching workloads than other academic staff," the review said.
Some of the new assistant professors didn't even know they could be fired at their first review.ACT union secretary Cathy Day
Professor Saini said staff did come under pressure after close to 100 left during a 2018 restructure, but he was not aware of any further workload problems.
"I'd invite anyone with evidence they are working more than the policy to come to me personally and I'll look into it," he said.
The review found similar tenure-tracks overseas came with built-in mentoring and research funding and called on UC to narrow its own program's scope to an "elite" track for research-focused academics at the exclusion of those in teaching-only roles, who struggled the most.
Professor Saini has agreed to stump up a research funding guarantee for each future assistant professor "within the usual budgetary considerations" but said cutting education academics out was unfair.
"In the last round, two of the people we approved were teaching academics," he said.
"Just because it might be harder to assess their performance, doesn't mean we shouldn't [include] them. We want top-notch people to have those opportunities."
Professor Saini said the program was still largely a success - more than 90 per cent of who made it through to the final review became associate professors.
But ACT union secretary Cathy Day said that many people who started the scheme didn't make it through that far.
"You don't judge who finishes a marathon based just off the people who get past the first 40 kilometres," she said.
"To say there's no problem with workload and mental health is absurd. [We] had to meet a member in a mental health ward about this. They're struggling, they only got the report today and they still don't have answers. A lot don't know what to do."
The union has lodged a workplace safety hazard over the scheme, after its survey of more than half of the 95 or so in the program found widespread job stress, dissatisfaction and health concerns.
While the university has made moves to boost support and mentoring around assistant professors in recent years, only 35 per cent of those surveyed in July knew who their mentor was.
"The university always says they knew what they were signing up for, a lot was promised that wasn't delivered," Dr Day said. "Some of the new assistant professors didn't even know they could be fired at their first review."
The review said some high performers, particularly in disciplines with well-established research support, felt supported by their mentors. But it noted "negative experiences of support was almost universal" among the 44 participating academics reviewers interviewed - some international candidates didn't even know the program disqualifies them from obtaining permanent residency.
Even some who made it through successfully said they would not recommend the program. One recently-promoted academic called it an "unethical and un-human process" where the goal posts for promotion "shift constantly...and seem different for each person".
Another said she chose to opt out of the scheme this year and take a $20,000 pay cut because the performance criteria had suddenly skewed further towards research.
"They told me it was really unlikely I'd make it now, [my boss] apologised to me," she said.
"I felt like we were being set up to fail."
Both the union and the review recommended greater recourse for assistant professors cut from the program early, but Professor Saini said the current mechanism built into the latest staff agreement was enough.
"Why add another layer of bureaucracy?" he asked.