The Value of Investment… in People

I apologise in advance because this post is less about learning and teaching as practice and more about protecting those people who provide the learning and teaching. It’s probably more political than usual, although I’m trying to be neutral here there’s some inevitability, so please feel free to skip it.

As many of you will know, a number of Australian Universities have had to slash their budgets in the wake of the global financial crisis, often due to a large amount of their operating budget coming from investments, rather than Commonwealth funds for student places or localised research and consulting incomes. As part of this, the rounds of staff retrenchments, targeted redundancies and the general theme of ‘reducing sail’ seems to show up on the news sites with increasing regularly.

Now, you might not be a huge fan of the American airline Southwest, but their continued profitability and growth after the horror of 9/11 was attributed to a number of key strategies that the airline took during that difficult time. Most other major airlines cut their routes and their staff to reduce their expenditure and, as we all know, staff are expensive. Southwest carried out no layoffs, instead looking at the situation as a possibility for expansion. If everyone else was reducing presence, well, soon enough, people would want to fly again. (I note that this was only really possible because Southwest had committed to keeping their debt low and their cash on hand high, which meant that they didn’t have to service dead debt or carry out a fire sale to strip out the debt or make their interest payments.) From what I’ve read, Southwest still pays some of the highest salaries, is still profitable, has surprisingly good ongoing relationships between management and labour, and, despite some hiccups, is proceeding pretty well.

Pilots take years to train. Crew take years to reach recognised higher levels of competency. A Captain requires somewhere between 10-20 years of experience, thousands of hours of flying, skill tests, commitment to physical fitness. Good cabin crew are also hard to find and take time to train, to give your airline the consistency and excellence of experience that keep people coming back. Who do you fire when the money starts getting squeezed? Senior people (and lose their expertise) or your junior people (and artificially age your workforce)? Worse still, when people start getting fired, what behaviour will you get from the rest? Solidarity, where you drive a wedge between management and worker because the workers unite for good or ill, or treachery, where workers turn on each other to scrabble up the side of the ship to get out of the water? A climate of fear takes focus away from your core business.

Academics take years to train. Senior educators, researchers and administrators take years to reach recognised higher levels of competency. A Professor takes 10-20 years of experience, thousands of hours of reading and writing, millions of dollars in grants, PhDs and other skill test, commitment to … ok, well there the analogy stops but a lot of us run or work out because we’re desk bound. Good administrative support people and professional staff members are hard to find and take time to train, to give our academy the consistency and excellence of experience that keep people coming back.

Do I really need to go on? At a time when the rest of the world is reeling from the GFC, Australia has had some interaction with it but, from most accounts, nothing like the impact elsewhere. When the world recovers, we want to be able to take as many students as possible, into well-established, well-staffed and actively growing programs. If we don’t do that, then somebody else will. There are new Universities going up all over the regions that we have traditionally seen as our student recruiting grounds. (Some Unis here are already changing their acceptance policies to address this but, with reduced staff, you have to wonder how extra intake is going to be balanced.)

This is the moment where we could go in many different directions – and only some of them are good.

We have an amazing opportunity to take what I believe to be a generally excellent educational basis at the tertiary level and make ourselves more available to the domestic and international markets. Shrinking a school, or an area, to half of its staff is not a 1 or even 5-year decision, it’s a 10-20 year decision. Could we be more efficient? Yes, I think we could. Do we need to keep quality levels high? Yes, but then let’s have that discussion and tell people what we want to achieve. Is there a finite amount of increase a given academic can take? Yes. There’s only so far we can squeeze before we risk compromising long-term sustainability, quality and excellence. It’s pretty obvious that there’s a lot of house cleaning going on at the moment, for a range of reasons, and I can’t help thinking that a lot of that can be handled through good management, rather than broad brush activities like this. But I’m a junior woodchuck, so my view may be heavily compromised and rose-tinted.

I’m always scared that these staff reduction exercises take out core aspects of our elders, remove the unlucky and encourage those who are capable in many fields to go elsewhere – at least as much as they remove people that we may actually want to “get rid of”. Worse, the climate of fear, of losing your job or having to shoulder the load as being one of the ‘lucky’ ones left behind, takes focus away from our core business – excellence in learning, teaching and research.

I look at Southwest and, yes, it’s a bit of a stretch, but I wonder what would happen if we committed to riding this out and seeing what opportunities opened up – with no need for division, enforced solidarity or encouraged treachery.


One Comment on “The Value of Investment… in People”

  1. Peter Kelly says:

    My mind still boggles when I think about what the university could have achieved if it had taken the $400 million dollars it’s recently spent on new buildings and instead put that money into teaching and research. Under these circumstances I find it pretty hard to blame anyone but those in charge of the university for the staff cuts. Sadly there are other universities in Australia where the same irresponsible use of funds is taking place on a similar scale.

    Like


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