Frequently asked questions (FAQs)
In the course of consultation on the Green Paper, a number of areas of common concern emerged. These FAQs aimed to address some of the points that were raised.
These FAQs in no way cover the full variety of issues raised, but were intended to help people as they read and considered the Green Paper.
- How does being placed in one vertical unit help in developing important teaching and research collaborations, which frequently occur outside that unit?
- Are there any real differences between this model and previous attempts at restructuring?
- Will the creation of new vertical units compromise our efforts to secure professional accreditation for our programs?
- Will the creation of large horizontal units concentrate limited research resources in one or two areas leaving staff outside these areas bereft of support?
- How will the large cross-disciplinary research areas be chosen?
- Why is the Green Paper criticising the honours year?
- Won’t the University Economic Model exacerbate hoarding and silo mentalities rather than undermine them?
- Why is the University having such a long consultation phase before making a decision?
- Where do we go from here?
1. How does being placed in one vertical unit help in developing important teaching and research collaborations, which frequently occur outside that unit?
Regardless of the vertical unit you work in formally – that is, whether you are in the College of Arts and Sciences or one of the professional schools – it is vital that you should not see your teaching and research circumscribed by a particular boundary. This important principle in part explains why we have spent considerable time discussing horizontal structures. Our aim through these linkages is to foster a culture where everyone sees the importance of having meaningful collaborative relationships with staff both within their vertical units and across the College/professional school boundaries (as well as broader partnerships outside the University). Our aim would be to foster these linkages rather than inhibit them.
There are two critical differences between this model and previous efforts over the last 20 years. First, we would not propose that the new vertical units (College or professional schools) would involve elaborate and extensive bureaucracies. In other words, unlike previous efforts, we would not be trying to impose an additional layer of management on top of the faculties and schools. At best these new organisational units would have one or two administrative staff. Second, each vertical unit would have a board of management structure. These boards would be there both to empower the faculties and schools within each structure and to create a collegial rather than a managerial governance structure. Indeed the thrust of the Green Paper discussion around this issue was to focus on governance as a critical issue in the effective operation of all organisational frameworks (vertical and horizontal).
3. Will the creation of new vertical units compromise our efforts to secure professional accreditation for our programs?
Our aim, through the deliberate preservation of faculty identities in the new structures (College or professional school), would be to ensure that faculties with key external constituencies retain their formal identity and standing to support their effective links to these external organisations and professions. We would not intend the new structures to necessarily become the point of identity or branding for the constituent parts of that unit (unless they decide there are strategic opportunities in doing so). On the contrary, there would be very good reasons in many cases to retain a strong focus and identity around core professional accreditation programs, and the retention of the titles ‘faculty’ and ‘dean’, regardless of where they might sit in the organisational structure, is designed to facilitate this outcome.
4. Will the creation of large horizontal units concentrate limited research resources in one or two areas leaving staff outside these areas bereft of support?
Our stress on the importance of large horizontal structures to facilitate cross-disciplinary research and education should not be read as an implicit attack on research support for other staff. On the contrary, we are firmly of the view that a great research-intensive university, as we are and aspire to be, can only truly be sustained if all researchers are provided with access to world-class research support.
We all know that some of the great research breakthroughs come from lone researchers and small teams, while the history of ‘picking winners’ is a less than happy one. In our view the key to a vibrant research environment is sustaining forms of research support that assist all researchers to achieve their potential. Much of this is done through faculty and school research support programs and this would continue under the new structures.
Our argument, however, is that some of the great research challenges of the next millennium would only be met through the creation of large cross-disciplinary research teams. Moreover, at present the evidence suggests that research at Sydney is not recognised as well as it should be because it is fractured into too many smaller units, centres and institutes and, as a consequence, Sydney researchers are missing out on some major funding opportunities (which are increasingly going to Melbourne, ANU and Queensland).
Our stress on large cross-disciplinary teams is not an argument about withdrawing support from most areas and concentrating it in a few select areas but rather a concern that we need to add more research support, and that, strategically, this would have the greatest impact if we were to invest some of this additional support in building larger cross-disciplinary teams in a few select areas.
Some staff have expressed disquiet about the fact that the decision-making processes for the allocation of large-scale research support are sometimes opaque. This view has some validity. Often the vagaries of short timeframes for federal government funding schemes necessitate rapid decision-making and quick submissions that inevitably involve small groups rather than widespread consultation and deliberation. While this is understandable it is less than ideal, and we would like to put in place better processes in the future.
The first key to more informed decision-making in the allocation of large-scale research support would be to establish the right evidence frameworks to inform decisions. This is why we have stressed the importance of much better research data sets to inform research strategy than we have at present. The second issue we want to emphasise is our desire to empower major committees, in this instance the SEG Research Committee, to guide the analysis of data and make recommendations on where we should invest in the future.
We do not see the Green Paper as either diminishing the significance of honours or wanting to abandon the honours year. On the contrary (although not every faculty has an additional research year for honours) we see the honours year as often an important capstone experience for an undergraduate degree.
Our more fundamental concern is whether the honours year is sufficient preparation for future research careers. In our view there is a weakness in the Australian research training system built around honours plus a three-year doctoral program. Such a system is geared more towards the production of a great thesis (and in this it often succeeds) than the creation of an effective researcher who can work in a variety of research environments and contexts. Sometimes the current structure is too narrow and this is not always in the best interests of students or their future. Our discussion of honours is not an argument for abandoning honours, but rather a foreshadowing that over the next couple of years we hope to have a serious discussion about how best to ensure that research training at the University of Sydney remains world-class. We don’t have the answers, but we believe it is important to ask the question and seek the answers together over the next few years.
7. Won’t the University Economic Model exacerbate hoarding and silo mentalities rather than undermine them?
This is a critical issue to consider further. In our view, the University Economic Model (UEM) would provide a process for making budgets more transparent than they are at present so that everyone has the knowledge and the tools to make informed decisions about the operation of their units and how to achieve the aims and aspirations of the University. Having a better understanding of the financial impacts of everything we do should better inform academic decision-making, without ever removing the principle that academic values themselves would also remain a critical component in any decision.
Lack of transparency has not prevented hoarding and silo mentalities. Transparency might, on the contrary, encourage collaboration and cooperation, as units and programs see that they might profit by sharing resources, programs and positions with other parts of the University (because for the first time they will see exactly where the revenue comes from and what the expenditures associated with every activity are). Moreover, by ensuring that all deans and the boards of each of the vertical units have collaboration and cooperation as one of their key objectives, we hope that the UEM will reduce hoarding, silo mentalities, duplication and overlap.
We acknowledge that consultation over the strategic direction of the University has been going on for nearly a year. Moreover the Green Paper itself is by no means the end of consultation, rather a further stage in an ongoing process of deliberation about our future. We recognise that many staff are rightly anxious and very keen for a decision to be made as soon as possible so they have certainty about the future and can start the planning process for themselves and their particular area.
Nonetheless, we believe that previous efforts to make decisions without careful consultation about the University and develop major strategies in education and research have sometimes floundered. As the Green Paper outlines, the challenges ahead are significant. Managing a large and complex institution often requires balancing competing imperatives. In seeking to achieve a balance between the legitimate interests of staff to contribute to University-wide discussions about strategy, and the equally legitimate interests of staff to have certainty about their position in the University, we recognise that some may feel that we have not achieved a balance or always got the balance right.
A key consideration for us, given the length of the consultation so far, is our aim to finalise a strategic plan by July 2010, to provide clarity for all staff as soon as possible. We would like, in particular, to acknowledge the patience, forbearance and great commitment of the administrative and general staff who have played a remarkable role in both actively contributing to the process of strategic planning and tolerating an extended period of deliberation to ensure that that the outcome is based on wide consultation and input. We look forward to your further contribution to our deliberations between now and July.
Once all your feedback has been gathered and analysed, we will begin a further series of consultations in order to tease out any of the issues which require further clarification and greater attention. This will include a series of ‘search conferences’ to explore desirable, common outcomes on specific topics and to understand where staff might envisage real improvements and acceptable change. These will be held throughout May, and will culminate in an all-staff forum, to be held in early June, which will provide an opportunity for the Vice-Chancellor to address issues identified in these search conferences. The White Paper, describing our proposed strategies after this period of consultation will be completed in July, along with the proposed Strategic Plan outlining our commitment to specific priorities and initiatives to be pursued over the next five years.