James Cook University (JCU) management is proposing to make nearly 40 academic staff redundant in Cairns and Townsville as it starts a third year of job cuts at one of the largest employers in northern Queensland.
Under the proposals, JCU's Division of Tropical Environments and Societies would lose 10% of its teaching and research staff and Tropical Health and Medicine would lose eight workers.
Management's rush to reduce staff numbers, which could see academics sacked in the middle of teaching the semester, shows that this is an inept “balance the budget” exercise.
In the longer term, it will have a major impact on the university's teaching and research capacity. International experts in cyclone storm surge and rainforest ecology would be sacked. Tropical health and biosecurity are being cut when tropical diseases like Ebola and the Zika virus are causing worldwide health scares.
In Cairns, Earth Sciences will not be taught beyond the first year and marketing subjects will only be taught online. Townsville will lose much of its law studies. Across both campuses most of the geography and politics lecturers have been targeted.
These disciplines are supposedly not “strategic” for JCU, yet management maintains the university will still be a comprehensive university. When questioned, they cannot say anything more detailed than four broad phrases about the “direction” they propose.
University management exaggerates government policy changes and declining student numbers as reasons for the proposed job cuts. The federal government's proposals — deregulation and a 20% cut in funding per student — are deeply unpopular and have been defeated twice in the Senate.
Enrolments at JCU increased every year from 2011-2014: in 2015 there was a 1.2% dip in Cairns and Townsville but a larger fall at the university's private arms in Brisbane and Singapore. Staffing had already been reduced by more than 6% in 2015, with an increase in casualisation.
Meetings of up to 90 National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) members have responded to the proposed cuts. These meetings, the largest in years, included many members who are not directly affected by the proposals. They launched a dispute with management about the lack of information and consultation. A campaign team has already begun to take up the issue with the whole JCU workforce and agreed to help students with a petition they are running against the cuts.
This is a vital economic issue for Cairns and Townsville as the JCU campuses are by far the largest employers in each city. In the two weeks the union has had to campaign, it has sought to open discussions with local communities on their visions for JCU, with considerable media coverage on this point.
[Jonathan Strauss is the NTEU JCU branch president and a Socialist Alliance member.]