One-person redundancy round claims university council member

Swinburne says former councillor and union rep was not targeted, but he says redundancy criteria were written for him

March 1, 2022
Swinburne University, Hawthorn as described in the article
Source: Getty

A former staff-elected member of Swinburne University of Technology’s governing council has taken the institution to Victoria’s human rights commission after he was ousted in a one-person redundancy round.

Samir Shrivastava, a senior lecturer in human resources management and organisation studies, had worked in Swinburne’s business and law faculty for 17 years before his dismissal last December. He was also vice-president of the Swinburne branch of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) and a member of the university council.

Dr Shrivastava believes that the eligibility criteria for redundancy had been crafted to target him. “I guess I was quite active and vocal as a union member. I was one of those people who has never been afraid to ask awkward questions,” he said.

Swinburne has said it followed the processes outlined in its enterprise agreement and agreed with the union. “At no time did Dr Shrivastava’s opinions, beliefs or actions as a NTEU representative play any part in a determination which was based on performance in a school where a number of redundancies were necessary,” the institution said.

The episode could add to perceptions that Australian universities have used Covid-induced cost-cutting as an opportunity to rid themselves of disfavoured staff and disciplines. It also raises questions about the use of student evaluations for hiring and firing.

Dr Shrivastava was among 16 business school staff targeted for redundancy in January 2021, based on an assessment of their teaching performance and research output. His appeal against the decision proved successful, with an independent reviewer finding that he had been denied natural justice.

The reviewer said the school had overlooked the impact of his considerable PhD supervision responsibilities, which had interrupted an otherwise glowing publication record. “Supervision and service contribution amounting to over 50 per cent of Dr Shrivastava’s workload were excluded from consideration in the selection process,” the reviewer said.

After another two colleagues subsequently resigned, Dr Shrivastava assumed that the faculty’s savings objectives had been met through natural attrition. Nevertheless, it launched another redundancy round targeting just one position – a senior lecturer in Dr Shrivastava’s combined management discipline. “Since implementing the changes proposed in 2020, the university’s financial challenges remain,” a 21-page “consultation pack” explained.

It devoted 12 pages to the process for selecting the staff member to be expelled, with 8 per cent of the overall score determined by PhD supervision and 32 per cent by students’ teaching satisfaction scores.

Dr Shrivastava was again selected for redundancy, and a second appeal proved unsuccessful, with a different reviewer rejecting his claim that the selection criteria had been “flawed, discriminatory and unfair”.

She accepted the university’s claim that there was no evidence of discrimination in student evaluations, notwithstanding scores of studies suggesting otherwise.

Business and law is the only Swinburne faculty that has used student evaluations to select staff for redundancy, and the only one that sought more redundancies following the 2020 retrenchment round.

Dr Shrivastava’s complaint to the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission is aimed at securing a direction to Swinburne to discontinue the “misuse of teaching evaluations”, he said. “You can’t reach conclusions that someone is incompetent as a teacher based solely on student feedback,” he said.

Swinburne NTEU branch president Julie Kimber said that a disproportionate number of redundancies in the faculty had been people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and that the metrics used in the selection process were partly responsible.

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