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University of Sydney sackings trigger academic backlash

Posted on behalf of Stephen Pincock.

One hundred academics at the University of Sydney, Australia, have this week been told they will lose their jobs for not publishing frequently enough. The move is part of wider cost-cutting plans designed to pay for new buildings and refurbishment to the university.

Letters were posted to researchers on Monday, 20 February, informing them their positions were being terminated because they hadn’t published at least four “research outputs” over the past three years, Michael Thomson, branch president of the Australian National Tertiary Education Union, told Nature. It is unclear which research fields the academics work in.

Another 64 academics were told that they had a choice between leaving and moving to a teaching-only position, he said. According to a report in The Australian, around 200 administrative positions are also going to be lost, bringing the total number of cuts to 340 out of a staff of 7,500.

The university has justified the cuts by saying that they are needed to cover an unexpected shortfall in student-fee income. Instead of the AUD$828.1 million (US$887 million) expected for 2011, the university took in only $792.3 million, and predictions suggest that this downward trend will continue. “As our planned income reduces, there nevertheless remain pressing needs for capital expenditure,” the university said in a statement.

The move has left university staff furious. In a statement, the National Tertiary Education Union rejected the rationale for the cuts, saying that the university was continuing with plans for “a massive building expansion at the cost of students’ education”.

The union also accused the university’s senior management of failing to properly consult with staff over the moves, which were first proposed in November 2011. “At no point has there been any recognition of the feedback that the unions and staff have given,” the union says.

“The mood is bloody,” agreed Jake Lynch, director of the university’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies. “The union accurately reflects the frustration of many researchers.”

In an open letter published by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on 10 February, Lynch and 67 other academics said that sacking researchers on the basis of their research output hastened “the importation into universities of the ‘target culture’ so drearily familiar in other fields”.

They also pointed out that staff had been told in late 2011 that a much lower rate of publication — an average of 0.8 publications a year — would be deemed “satisfactory”.

The union is now in a formal dispute process with the university, which Thomson predicted would probably reach the national workplace-relations tribunal next week. A staff meeting is planned for the first week of March — the beginning of the academic year — and Thomson says that industrial action is a possibility.


  1. Report this comment

    Trevor Marshall said:

    Interesting… I wonder whether they equate ‘research outputs’ in the plethora of online journals, one of which seems to spring up each week, with, for example, an NPG publication. It seems they do. Sigh…

    Looks like nobody will bother to present at conferences in future. No point, is there? You are better to keep writing, apparently. And as for Chairing conference sessions, nope, apparently no recognition at all for that. It is sad to see the demise of Oz academia…

  2. Report this comment

    Steve Wylie said:

    Was the quality of these research outputs taken into consideration? One major paper in a highly cited journal such as this one would surely outweigh any number in minor journals. The focus should be on quality, not mere quantity.

  3. Report this comment

    M Henri Day said:

    There can be no question but that (no doubt, very productive) University of Sydney bureaucrats are quite right in their decision to sack researchers who have not published «frequently enough» – after all, we all know that it is buildings (and bien sûr, administrative personnel), not researchers and teachers who constitute the University….


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    Pavel Prosselkov said:

    “Although many believe that “more is better”, history tells us that “least is best” – Sydney Brenner, “Life’s code script” (Nature, 482 (2012))

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