University cuts and progress

It has been a topsy-turvy week for news from the University of Otago.

Yesterday came the big and long-awaited announcement on the major proposed restructuring for support staff.  A total of 182 full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs are earmarked to go. The process began two years ago, and a consultation phase remains.

On Thursday came confirmation 12 FTE positions would be cut from the School of Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Sciences.

The university also confirmed it was removing the dance specialisation from the school.

Earlier in the week the university announced it planned to spend $26million on a new music facility.

Naturally, such spending raises concerns at times of cuts. 

The humanities has been through changes, human nutrition will be cut back and reviews will proceed in several other areas.  Naturally, each cut causes heartbreak and dedicated and capable staff are lost. 

Courses disappear and questions are raised about  priorities and what constitutes the core of the university.  The general staff cuts  and reorganisation will be especially difficult.

Nonetheless, universities, like so much of the modern world, are subject to intense competitive pressures and constant change.  Flexibility is required to thrive or even survive. Slip behind and the consequences are dire.

Universities and their departments must constantly evolve and adapt.  Part of this encompasses the various reviews so the university is running as efficiently as possible. 

Money must be saved so that it can be spent elsewhere, including on buildings. Vice-chancellor Harlene Hayne is correct to identify, first, the imperative to change and, secondly, the need for first-rate facilities, whatever else is going on.  As she said this week, if universities provide run-down facilities they are less attractive to students and academics.  Otago must attract top-rate students and academics to prosper.

The cuts to various departments have surprised and shocked, especially when they have affected what have been university core subjects and traditional parts of those disciplines.

Those courses need, of course, to maintain the highest standards in their efforts to counteract wider trends.  They must receive support and encouragement and university funding models must not disadvantage them at the expense of what might be considered more current trends or more expensive science, technology or health science courses.

But,  nothing exists as of right.  If students cannot be attracted, courses will disappear.  The university says, for example, only 2.7 full-time equivalent students were taking the Phys Ed School’s 200-level and 300-level dance papers.  That is unsustainable.

It has been salutary to observe cuts applying well beyond the humanities.  Who would have thought human nutrition, at a time when food consciousness is rising, would be facing substantial reductions.  And the battering to the Phys Ed School might reflect, despite its proud history, a failure to stay in step with changes in society.

Did it, perhaps, neglect taking advantage of today’s health and leisure trends? Was it too focused on traditional dance, movement and sport and missed the burgeoning fitness and gym industry?  Can its long four-year degree have competed successfully with the plethora of other outdoor courses and all the various sporting academies?  Had it, and the university, marketed the school sufficiently and cleverly enough?  Was university and department complacency, based on the school’s first-rate record and research, an issue?

Rumbling behind the support staff restructuring are  questions about how the university arrived at a position where such broad changes were required.  How did it become so unwieldy?  During times of growth,  which stopped from 2010, was enough attention paid to efficiencies?  Could the trauma of such sweeping restructuring have been lessened by better earlier management?

Whatever the background, the university must, indeed,  be vigorous in building for the future — whether that means various restructurings or building new or revamp facilities.

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