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Courses culled, 230 staff jobless as AUT comes under fire for proposed cuts

By Justin Hu (he/him)

AUT is proposing to cull 230 staff and dozens of courses in one of the most significant downsizing measures in the university’s history.

Announced in early September, the wide-ranging proposal suggests cutting around 11 percent of the university’s full-time equivalent payroll (at least five percent of staff members overall) and reducing the number of papers and courses available to students. Up to $21 million in savings are expected from the staffing cuts, which would result in the university letting go of 150 academic staff by December. The university’s management blamed its austerity measures on a steep drop in international student numbers due to Covid-19, inflationary economic pressure and a “buoyant employment market” leading to fewer domestic students. The proposal says “AUT is uniquely financially exposed amongst the eight universities to changes in student numbers because student-derived revenue made up more than 80 percent of our total revenue in 2021 as compared to a sector average of 65 percent .” In response, the Tertiary Education Union (TEU) has labelled the move as “unnecessary”, a “slap in the face” and part of a “race to the bottom.” University vice-chancellor Damon Salesa said in a statement that it was a “difficult time” for the organisation: “AUT’s fundamentals are sound, but we have a responsibility to ensure we continue to meet the needs of our current and future students.”

Staff cuts

The university’s proposal to staff, obtained by Debate, states: “While student numbers and revenue have decreased in many of our programmes, staff numbers and costs have not.” It further suggests that AUT has been spending four percent more on staffing than it can sustainably afford to in the future. According to the document, 50 academic staff are expected to be let go from the design and creative technologies faculty. Meanwhile, 30 academic staff would be let go from the health and environmental sciences faculty, with the same number from the business, economics and law faculty. There are also 40 academic job losses expected from the culture and society faculty and Te Ara Poutama.

The TEU’s Irena Brörens said teaching staff would have to do more with less due to the cutbacks: “Staff cuts are never the way to address temporary fluctuations in student numbers. We have seen time and time again that they only result in unsustainable workloads and reduced service for students.”

Course cuts

Within the proposal are also suggested cuts towards some programmes and courses. This year, the university has forecasted an eight percent drop in the number of students enrolling as compared to 2021. It says the forecast is the lowest since 2013.

These changes in demand are not distributed evenly across our faculties. Business, Economics and Law have had declining EFTS since 2017, Culture and Society, and Design and Creative Technologies since 2019. Conversely, Health and Environmental Sciences has grown around 1,200 EFTS since 2017.” As a result, two groups of courses have been identified for cutbacks by the university: programmes with low student numbers or “strategically unaligned” programmes. AUT has told Debate that academic deans have identified programmes with low student enrolments that will see either staffing cutbacks or be discontinued entirely: “As this is still a proposal and consultation with staff is taking place, these are not listed.” These course cutbacks will be made known after the university has consulted with staff. Meanwhile, strategically “unaligned activities” include several majors for students taking or looking to take a Bachelor of Arts – these include Social Sciences, Conflict Resolution, English and New Media, Japanese Studies, and Chinese Studies. In addition, minors in Asian Studies and Language Teaching have also been deemed strategically unaligned in the proposal. The Certificate in Science and Technology course is also proposed for discontinuation. However, AUT says “many students” will have completed the one-year course by the end of 2022. Staff affected by the course cuts will be let go at the end of November, and discontinued courses will finish at the end of semester two.

Other cuts

AUT has also proposed cutting or closing five “non-core activities” that are “no longer strategic priorities” for the university. “Subject to contractual obligations for consultation, [these activities] are proposed to be wound down over the latter part of 2022, with all staff positions directly associated with these activities declared surplus upon confirmation of decisions to close,” the proposal stated. The wound-down activities are primarily specialised initiatives within the university. These include the AUT Drone Lab and the 16-year-old Textile and Design Lab. Other proposed cuts include the Warkworth Radio Astronomical Observatory, Aotearoa’s only major radio observatory. New Zealand Royal Astronomical Society president Nalayini Brito told the Herald that any potential closure would mean “closing the country’s radio astronomy segment of science altogether.” However, the uni says it’s “open to working with external parties” to keep the facilities running. AUT’s English language school, International House, is also part of the list of activities to be wound down, alongside the Early Childhood Centre at City Campus.

Reaction and context

AUT is one of several universities that have announced significant cuts in response to a curtailed intake of international students and cost pressures. University spokesperson Alison Sykora said the university understood people would be “upset by this proposal” that is the “first of its kind in the university’s 22-year history.”

“We have been clear to our staff since April this year that there are financial challenges that need to be addressed,” she said. “There is a sector-wide reduction in students and growing costs that have made this necessary. “A range of activities, including reduction of international travel and reducing our real estate footprint have been undertaken to cut costs, but reductions to staff costs are needed to address the financial sustainability of the university. These are proposals, and we are committed to working with our staff to receive feedback and make the right decisions.” But the union for tertiary workers isn’t convinced by the explanation. “It’s a sign that universities are devaluing staff who should be the basis of any human service. This is not a strategy AUT should be trying to emulate. Any university should be proud to invest significantly in staff,” the TEU’s Irena Brörens said. Union organiser at AUT, Jill Jones, described the proposals as “bitterly disappointing.” “It’s a slap in the face for our members,” she said, “who have been working very hard to keep their university running through the Covid-19 pandemic, a ‘hiring freeze’ and a voluntary leaving scheme that has already left many with high workloads due to already reduced staffing. Not to mention a ‘travel ban’ that has made AUT a less attractive place to work than other universities.” Massey University released a “proposal for change” in August, which the TEU said could lead to the loss of 150 jobs. Meanwhile, around 300 employees at the University of Auckland accepted redundancies as part of a “voluntary leaving scheme” in 2020, according to RNZ.

Additional reporting by David Williams.


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