Uni staff bracing for cuts

Shaun Scott.
Shaun Scott.
Morale is at rock bottom among general staff at the University of Otago amid fears a review could result in the loss of hundreds of jobs.

However, the university said on Thursday rumours 300 staff could be cut were unfounded and there was no financial or staffing target for the review.

The support services review, which started in mid-2015, is expected to result in a major shake-up in the way general staff work at the university.  More services would be shared across the whole institution rather than replicated in separate departments.

Forums have been held with staff in the past week  and a final business case for the changes  is to be completed by the middle of the year.

Staff were told they  might  learn  their fate by March next year, once the business case had been fully considered. The university has employed about 140 staff on short-term contracts,  and their  positions remain uncertain ahead of the review’s outcome.

The review comes after job cuts in the humanities last year and with more expected in the human nutrition and the School of Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Sciences this year.

Tertiary Education Union organiser Shaun Scott said a lack of information about what might happen had taken a heavy toll on staff morale.

"Stress levels are the highest I’ve ever seen them at the university.‘‘It would be fair to say that staff, even after those forums, remain really concerned and anxious."

The union and staff believed things were working well at the university and wholesale change risked "throwing out the baby with the bathwater".

People were not only concerned about losing their jobs, but also that they would be given new roles that were not as meaningful, rewarding or challenging as the ones they had now.

"We fear for job losses and the impact that has on people and their families and actually on Dunedin as well."

The union had met the university regularly to voice staff concerns,  but it had been  difficult to get any detail.

"We know that the employer has said that there will be job cuts as a result of this; we don’t know how many."

University  human resources director Kevin Seales disagreed with the suggestion staff were being kept in the dark about the review. Mr Seales said there had been an "unprecedented level" of transparency and consultation throughout the process.

There had been 142 workshops in the most recent phase of the review, which had been attended by more than 1200 staff.

The review involved a broad look at how "support services" were provided across the university to ensure they were efficient and fit for purpose.

He was aware some who attended recent forums were disappointed more detail was not provided.

"However, we do not want to give staff incomplete or partially thought-through information."

The detail would only be contained in the finished business case, to be presented to the project’s steering group  about  midway through the  year. The steering group would then decide which options it supported.

"The university is acutely aware that processes such as these create uncertainty and anxiety for staff," Mr Seales said.

It had put in place measures to mitigate anxiety, including increasing the number of employee assistance programme sessions available and occupational health nurse support.

It was also providing ongoing training to help staff respond and adapt to change.

"In anticipation of any changes, the university is using fixed-term agreements to mitigate the impact that these changes may have."

Acting vice-chancellor Prof Vernon Squire said the emphasis on finding efficiencies and keeping costs down was not new.

It was expressed in the university’s "Strategic Direction to 2020" document, which stated universities needed to evolve to meet the challenges of a "changing world" and given they were publicly funded they must be "mindful of the need to ... use resources efficiently", Prof Squire said.

As of 2015, the university had 2184 full-time-equivalent general staff, but not all of them were subject to the review. 


Shared Services is a familiar strategy. Staff find they are looking after academic needs other than those of their own department.

Anthropology, rushed off its feet, has to empty the bathwater left by Early Childcare, and that put upon, overlooked baby gets thrown out again.

I wonder if the Uni will disclose the extent of restructuring before early enrolment time. Potential students need to know if Canterbury might be a better place. I'd say Auckland too, but you have to put up with CKS being snippy about Eleanor Catton.

Otago is always throwing out an overlooked infant in bathwater, who must be exceeding peeved by now.