Mystery surrounds Otago health sciences shake-up

The University of Otago is throwing money at consultants in a mystery-shrouded effort to shake up its prestigious health sciences division, which academics worry is doomed to fail.

Health science staff have been told a review of the division’s structure by the university’s leadership — supported by external consultants — will mean changes ahead.

However, information about the proposed changes was sketchy and many staff had not been consulted.

Staff were confused, anxious and thought the restructure would fail if they were not consulted urgently, the Tertiary Eduction Union (TEU) said.

Staff were also worried the review — by Australian consultancy firm Nous — was happening at the same time as a university-wide cost-saving review, expected to result in hundreds of redundancies.

One health sciences academic criticised the structure review as "counter-intuitive".

"We are spending money on consultants concurrent to trying to save money.

"How much is this costing us?"

They were deflated at "continual rounds of reviews, redundancies and precarious short-term contracts."

However, one of the co-leaders of the structure review, acting pro-vice-chancellor of health sciences Prof Patricia Priest, said "the health sciences division is large and complex and there are likely to be better structures to support the work we do".

Acting vice-chancellor Prof Helen Nicholson said the review was necessary to ensure health sciences were "efficient, effective and fit for purpose."

She admitted the timing of the two concurrent reviews were "difficult" for staff.

Health science department heads had been promised more information about the structure review’s provisional findings early next week.

Health sciences was a jewel in the crown of the university’s teaching and research, and was delivered from campuses in Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington and Invercargill through various faculties and schools — including medicine, dentistry, biomedical sciences, pharmacy, physiotherapy and public health.

Health sciences provided most of the university’s academic income — nearly two out of every three dollars — an anticipated $529million in 2023.

The other three academic divisions — commerce, humanities and sciences — were budgeted to provide $356million income combined.

However, provision of health sciences came at a cost and its contribution to the university’s central administration costs, proportional to its income, was the lowest of all academic divisions.

According to senior sources in health sciences, one option was a "hub and spoke" organisational structure.

This could affect the running of departments — including medicine — that have activities split across campuses.

Staff were fearful the option would lead to chains of command hundreds of kilometres apart between campuses, resulting in ineffectual distance learning and uninformed management.

"We are not sure what problem they are trying to fix," another health academic said.

"There is high-level stuff leaking out, not yet shared, that could lead to wholesale disruption if implemented.

"Trying to co-ordinate people across different places to provide complex teaching would not work.

"There is also a sense that the consultants are not listening to feedback — and a lot of staff have not been given a chance to comment."

In a meeting earlier this month for health science staff, the university’s leadership said the status quo structure would not remain.

However, the meeting was otherwise "not very informative" and "no-one thinks it is going to work", a staff member said.

"Much has been behind closed doors so far," TEU co-branch president Craig Marshall said.

"Most staff have not been consulted, and heads of department very little. It is frustrating.

"We must be told key issues the review is trying to address and be involved, otherwise, change could have unintended poor consequences."

Prof Nicholson said the university was aware "it is a difficult time for staff because different processes are happening while the health sciences’ structure review is ongoing".

"However, the structure review is a separate process focused on the structure of the division and not on individual roles or functions."

The university declined to say how much Nous were being paid, describing this as "commercial sensitive".