What does the term ‘genuine consultation’ mean? FWC on UWA change proposal illustrates low standards of accountability in Australian universities

When Associate Professor Martin Forsey was presented with a proposal for change at his workplace that lacked a logical argument and contained flawed data he bought a case to the Fair Work Commission, arguing that such a flawed proposal could not be used as the basis of the ‘genuine consultation’ about structural reform required under his enterprise agreement.

However, in its judgement released last week, the Fair Work Commission found that the university was under no obligation to provide data, let alone accurate data, in order to justify its proposal, and that because staff had been given the opportunity to respond to the proposal, UWA had clearly fulfilled its remit to provide ‘genuine consultation’.

The term ‘genuine consultation’ was included in the EBA and the use of the term ‘genuine’ seems to imply that consultation will extend beyond a cursory or deceitful representation of the justification for change.

But in this case, the Fair Work Commission argued that ‘genuine consultation’ had taken place on the following grounds:

  • UWA provided a written proposal detailing the nature of the change, the underlying rationale for the change and the impact of the change on employees.

Fact check. The Social Science Proposal for Change did outline that the rationale for the change was to ‘improve budget sustainability, increase student load growth and improve student experience’, it also outlined that in order to achieve these goals, some majors would be eliminated, some turned into ‘teaching focused’ majors, and some rendered as ‘research flagships’. What was not in the proposal was any logical claim or connection between the nature of the changes made and the intended goals of the changes.

Logically the proposal read like ‘in order to have more bananas, we’re going to plant some apples’.

This was particularly concerning for staff as many of the changes seemed to undermine the ability for the school to achieve the stated goal – for instance – rewarding inefficient disciplines with ‘research flagship’ status while punishing efficient ones with high teaching loads actually discourages efficiency and student load growth.

In place of any rational justification for the changes, the proposal simply contained some carefully selected tables of data that selectively represented the achievements of disciplines in external research funding and Staff/Student Ratio (note – not in efficiency or student outcomes). It also selectively mentioned the decline in enrolments in Antrop and Sociology. All of these tables and use of data contained flaws and misrepresentations.

  • UWA provided the opportunity to meet and confer on the Proposal and any alternative proposals.

Fact check. The Head of School and a HR representative met with every discipline after the proposal was released. In these meetings my discipline was explicitly told that the only way to provide feedback on the proposal was via a school administered email address. When it was revealed that the Head of School would be vetting all feedback staff questioned the fairness of this process but were asked ‘to trust’ that management would consider all feedback. While the Head of School did offer to meet again to discuss the impact of the proposed changes, she made it clear that such meetings could not be used to discuss the proposal’s merits.

  • Genuine consideration given to matters raised

Fact check. The FWC uses the the inclusion of an indigenous anthropology major as evidence that ‘genuine consideration’ was given to matters raised. More than 390 pieces of feedback were received in response to the proposal. As a result of an FOI request we can now see that one of them suggested that indigenous anthropology might be necessary (presumably to secure more research funding from mining companies). The rest of the feedback questioned the logic behind the proposal, and most illustrated that the proposal would not achieve its rationale. This included a joint submission from all school disciplines that rejected the proposal based upon clear inequity and faulty logic.

The vast majority of feedback (over 380 carefully written and argued documents) was simply rejected, or went unconsidered, and at hastily called town hall meeting the Head of School announced the ‘revised’ proposal would be enstated with no further alteration beyond the inclusion of a possible anthropology major.

This was the first time staff had heard that all their efforts to point out the logical flaws in the proposal and come up with alternatives were being ignored and dismissed. So following the presentation the ‘town hall’ was opened up to questions.

As I had to use video conferencing to attend at such late notice (the meeting was announced less than 24 hours before it was held) I typed in my question that went to the heart of the faulty logic behind the proposal:

‘How does punishing the most efficient discipline in the school with the best student outcomes with higher teaching loads encourage other disciplines to achieve efficiency and improve student outcomes?’

The Head of School started to read this aloud, but then stopped and skipped to the next question without answering it, before becoming flustered, shutting down the meeting and attempting to leave. The question remained unanswered and the ‘consultation’ was over. So I sent an email to SDVC Biggs who simply responded that ‘he didn’t see it that way’ without any argument, logic or rejoinder. I then sent an email to the VC  asking the same question and am yet to receive a response. I emailed the VC again about a month ago, restating my question – and again – I’m still yet to receive a response.

And this is supposed to be ‘genuine consultation’?

This FWC judgement sidestepped the complaint that there was no rationale provided in the proposal aside from the faulty data. Feedback on the proposal was collated only by the proposal’s author and the vast majority of it, including a joint submission from all school staff, was never responded to, or addressed. Of 391 pieces of feedback to the proposal, almost all of which was entirely critical of the lack of clear and justifiable rationale behind the changes, one largely cosmetic change was taken on board and used by the university and the FWC as evidence that the consultation was ‘genuine’.

The corruption and cronyism at UWA goes way beyond this case but the fact that the management of a PUBLIC university is hiding behind such low levels of legitimacy and accountability to me suggests that the university is losing its integrity and will soon be consigned to become the ethics-free corporate training college that the Morrison government most desperately wants it to be.

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