Covid cuts ‘extraordinary opportunity’ for next-door university

Deemed surplus to needs as their university amassed a A$200 million buffer, UWA social scientists find welcome at Curtin

July 3, 2022
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Five academics left jobless by a bitter departmental restructure, as their university cut costs while amassing a gigantic surplus, are working again after the neighbouring institution pegged them as an “extraordinary” recruitment opportunity.

Curtin University enlisted the former University of Western Australia (UWA) social scientists – a sociologist, a geographer and specialists in Africa, Japan and Korea – to bolster its “One Curtin global dream” of transforming four offshore campuses from facilities for teaching foreigners to hubs for research, partnerships and multi-directional mobility.

In an internal email announcing the recruitment, Richard Blythe, Curtin’s pro vice-chancellor of the Faculty of Humanities, said UWA’s decision to “downscale” its activities in global studies had put Curtin in “an extraordinary position to step up and become a leader in global engagement in the region”.

Two of the five academics, reportedly including UWA’s most highly cited social scientist, were made redundant during an acrimonious restructure of their school. Two more took voluntary redundancy after their roles were changed to “teaching focused” positions, while a fifth resigned in June.

Times Higher Education unsuccessfully sought comment from the five academics. UWA said it had “no comment to make about a reported internal communication from another organisation”.

Professor Blythe said the recruits would complement the “deep knowledge” Curtin had cultivated in Asia and the Indian Ocean through its presence in Dubai, Malaysia, Mauritius and Singapore. The additional expertise would help the university “brainstorm” ways of engaging “that none of us have thought of before”.

He said universities had a key role in helping to navigate new “energy futures” amid intensifying ideological and geopolitical conflicts. “It’s very important for at least one large university in the west of the country to be on to this and actively engaging with it.”

UWA last year said its social science restructure had been necessitated by “unsustainably low” enrolments in some areas and an institution-wide “structural deficit” of A$40 million (£23 million).

Critics said the university had withheld evidence of the university’s financial problems and overstated the decline in anthropology and sociology enrolments.

A legal challenge by one of the ousted academics was dismissed in November, with the Fair Work Commission concluding that the university had no obligation to provide data underpinning its decision-making.

Months later, published accounts revealed that UWA had more than quadrupled its 2020 surplus to over A$200 million in 2021, mainly thanks to an investment windfall and extra federal funding. In an accompanying report, vice-chancellor Amit Chakma did not mention the financial result but said the university had been forced to prove its “adaptability and flexibility under acute pressures”.

Observers have claimed that some Australian universities have discarded more staff than necessary during the pandemic, using Covid as cover to jettison disfavoured disciplines.

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