Are student services at risk at Western Sydney University?
The answer to that question rather depends on whom you ask.
If you were to ask Western Sydney University directly, the answer would be a strong negative. Consulting the University’s most recent Strategic Plan, published for the period of 2017 – 2020, the University claims that “[a] central tenet of the University’s student-centred approach is to integrate academic and personal support at all stages of the student lifecycle”.
But while this statement may encourage a belief that studying and living on-campus will be a positive experience, the reality is that students are facing the removal of essential student services. The reason? The university, despite its best-laid plans, is having to enact budget cuts. According to the University’s Annual Report for 2015, Western Sydney University took a loss of almost twenty-five million dollars in net profit when compared to 2014, as a result, the academic and personal support structures for students have begun to suffer.
There have been several recent examples of these cuts, the first being the plan to remove ‘Study Hall’ hours from the on-campus libraries, an issue which was reported by W’SUP in February of this year. The wider student body were not consulted before the decision was enforced, and the student representatives of the various Student Campus Councils (SCCs) and the Student Representative Council (SRC) were merely notified of the changes, rather than consulted and allowed to provide input before the changes were made. The decision was met with widespread public outcry amongst the student body, with many signing an online petition to have the change reversed before it began to affect students. Lucy Borg, a fourth-year Bachelor of Law Student, told W’SUP at the time of the decision “the [changes to Study Hall hours will] have a massive impact on my studies, as I mainly have time to study at night. This means without access to the library at these hours I can’t access books”.
Following the outcry, the university listened to the students and reversed the changes, even going as far as to extend the hours of ‘Study Hall’ and released the following statement:
The University has reconsidered its position and will reinstate Study Hall. We would like to work with students regarding some of the issues surrounding the use of Study hall to ensure that SSAF funds are invested appropriately.
While this issue may seem like old news, it is only the first of a series of recent changes that have started taking their toll on students. When students returned for the start of the Autumn Session for 2017, another change was ready to greet them at the offices of Student Central – the QLess System. This system has been derided by students and has proven ineffective at the best of times, and ill-equipped to handle the peak times where student assistance is required, such as during the enrolment phases of the semester. “Despite being the only one in the Student Central office, I was asked to give my details and to wait for ten minutes as I was third in the queue”, said Phil Craig, a student from the Kingswood Campus.
However, the most damaging change to student services has been the dramatic reductions in the number of on-campus staff, predominantly administrative staff and student counsellors. At the end of the Spring Session for 2016, eligible staff were offered an Early Voluntary Retirement Scheme, or EVRS for short. The EVRS was an ATO approved scheme that allowed staff to retire from their positions in exchange for a financial package. It’s very similar to a redundancy package, but rather than the positions that those staff occupy no longer being required, they are simply replaced by new employees who will bring fresh insights and experiences into the workplace, kickstarting the support structure for students.
So, you may ask, what’s the problem?
The problem is that the positions made vacant by the EVRS have not been adequately filled. In preparation for this article, I spoke with a university representative from the Office of Media and Public Relations. When asked about the University’s plans to backfill these vacant positions, the representative stated that “[t]he University intends to fill positions to make the best use of counselling services and ensure a continued and responsive service to students”. However, the representative then added that:
“The positions vacated in the counselling area due to [the] EVRS have already been backfilled on a contractual basis”.
And herein lies the crux of the issue.
The positions have been filled by a series of casually employed counsellors, who require appointments to be booked in advance before they can even consider seeing students to address their problems. In conjunction with this, it is not always possible to make appointments with the same counsellor, which means that no solid progress can be achieved as students are forced to explain their problems repeatedly without any solutions being reached.
The SRC is working to curtail the damage done by this plan. Grant Murray, Vice-President for 2017, stated “the SRC wants the vacated positions to be adequately refilled with experienced and similarly paid members of staff who can provide ongoing support to students, just has been done so previously”.