Inside the Business Improvement Program

Wednesday, 23 July, 2014

On June 10 every student at the University of Melbourne was sent an email announcing plans to cut 540 administrative jobs by 1 January 2016. The changes are part of what the university calls the Business Improvement Program, or BIP.

What is the BIP?

The BIP, according to the university, is “an innovative program to revamp service and support activities and strengthen its position in an increasingly competitive international tertiary environment”.

But the BIP has implications for everyone at the university—from professional staff, to students, to academics, and even the people organising it.

At a staff Town Hall meeting in December last year, before the 540 job cuts were announced, Vice-Chancellor Professor Glyn Davis said select staff were teaming up with management consultants from a company called Booz & Co. (now Strategy&) to design and implement the BIP. The savings from the change are expected to be around $70 million per annum. The university says it will reinvest 80 per cent of this in teaching, research, and engagement.

While it may seem instinctual at this point to attribute the job cuts to the federal budget, Professor Davis has said cuts to university funding made under the Gillard government last year were a key factor. But the Abbott government’s plan to cut 20 per cent of university teaching funds by 2016 also plays a part.

The number of administrative staff will be reduced by around 15 per cent, dropping from 3568 to 3028. The university has stated that it hopes to lessen the impact on staff through natural attrition (where staff resign or retire naturally). But it has ruled out voluntary redundancies. It has also revealed plans to add up to an additional 300 academic staff due to the changes.

As a result of the BIP, some academic support services will become automated.

What are its consequences?

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) believes students will be paying more and getting less. It estimates around half of student support services will be moved online.

Kate Jeffreys is a Technical Writer for Information Technology Services (ITS). She is one of the many administrative staff who will be directly affected by the job cuts. Jeffreys has a six-term position that ends in November. She is not sure if she will still have a job at the university by that time, and, if so, what sort of job she might have.

Jeffreys said she feels “demoralised by the whole process”.

“We don’t know what our jobs will look like because the university is rewriting all of the position descriptions and reclassifying all of the department structures,” she says. “Some people are concerned that they may be reclassified to lower pay grades. Mostly, the problem is that they haven’t really given us any consultation on the things that will actually affect us most closely.”

Judging by conversations around the office, Jeffreys says her colleagues are “hurt and angry”. “They feel like their contributions to the university are not valued and that the people proposing the changes don’t understand what we do.”

“The university’s annual report for 2013 said we’re ahead of budget and the university’s financial position is secure,” she says. “I think universities should be about education, research, and contributing to society, not profiteering. We’re not a mining corporation, we’re a university.”

Jeffreys said she is still not sure, but it seems that ITS will be restructured. “They centralise, they decentralise, they centralise again, and if you need to restructure every year or so, then something’s not right.”

The BIP has prompted staff protests too. The NTEU held another protest on 16 July, which is when the university executives made their official decisions on the BIP.

Jeffreys stressed the importance of having a strong union at a time like this.

“Even if they do follow through with the proposal for 540 job cuts, personally, I really hope that’s not the end of the whole thing. I would definitely be supporting more calls for action to defend those jobs,” she says.

Students and the BIP

Students haven’t been completely left out of the BIP either. According to Head of University Services Paul Duldig, student experience is a huge part of the program.

“I’m very aware that even though we don’t do the teaching and the research in the university, the students’ experience of the university on a daily basis almost every minute of every day that you’re engaging with the university, you’re engaging with one of my services—be it IT, be it the campus, be it buildings, be it student services, be it the library,” he says. “What I’d like to build is a service experience which is a big part of how people actually experience the university outside of formal teaching.”

He says he does not know if students were consulted about the BIP specifically, but is willing to do consultations. “I’m very conscious that improving student experience has been one of the goals of the BIP—it’s been made clear to me right from day one,” he says.

Academics and the BIP

Dr Graham Willett, from the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, is also the Academic Vice-President of the NTEU Melbourne Branch. He believes academics should be concerned about the BIP too.

With the major details of the program being announced to staff right at the end of semester one, academics have not had much of a chance to think about it yet, Dr Willett says.

He says the NTEU has heard reports that University Executive has been lacking in its consultation with staff.

“They’re paying consultants who don’t really know anything about the place, rather than talking to the staff,” he says. “And this is something that would’ve had to involve the professional staff and the academics, because obviously anything that affects the professional staff will flow on.”

He says the university has announced a specific amount of job losses, but has not been able to provide information on where they will be taken from and under what conditions. “Either they do know and they’re not telling us, or they don’t know and they started the process of quote-unquote ‘consultation’ without us having anything to concretely be consulted about.”

Dr Willett says it is part of the way the university treats its staff—as if they were “replaceable parts”. He says it is as if “people are just widgets [that] can be slotted in regardless of their skills or their interests or their pay level. And that’s going to be a terrible mess. People are going to find themselves doing jobs they don’t really know how to do or particularly want to do.”

He believes this will have an impact on academics as well, and says it is important that academics get involved as well as professional staff.

He says the university seems to be rushing the program, despite its complications. “They just lurch from one nifty idea to another nifty idea as they try to deal with the messes they either see or they’ve made. And it’s very hard on the staff.”

Dr Willett says that the Faculty of Arts seems to be the least affected by the BIP, but note that the “chaos” he thinks will result as people are redistributed, makes it “hard to tell who will be worse affected by that than anybody else”.

Consultation and feedback

Dean of the Faculty of Arts Professor Mark Considine is on the Business Improvement Program Steering Committee (SteerCo) along with Senior Vice-Principal Ian Marshman and Provost Professor Margaret Sheil. The Committee was commissioned by the Vice-Chancellor and the Council and exists to provide recommendations to the University Executive.

Professor Considine says he finds it hard to believe staff members were unaware of the BIP until recently. He stresses the university’s efforts to inform staff—including a full briefing on the program at the start of the year that was televised, recorded, and distributed in print.

“The Vice-Chancellor doesn’t make whole-of-university pronouncements and go live to air all over the place unless it’s something fairly important,” he says.

He believes at this point, staff who may not have been engaged will become involved. “It’s really not so much about the communication, but about the engagement,” Professor Considine says.

Professor Considine outlines the consultation points in the process: the Committee draws up a template, which consultants edit and take to specific departments for their input. This is followed by meetings between the local level staff and BIP leadership. “Each of those has been very different,” he says. “I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think that just reflects the fact that the BIP process is impacting in quite a variable way.”

“In some of these cases, people want a lot of detail and they’re down at the level of detail very quickly. ‘Where will my desk be?’; ‘what building will I be in?’—we’ve been asked that level of detail in some of the meetings. We don’t know the answer to that. But we can create a kind of track to say once we know this then we’ll be able to tell you that. Help us with this first, then we can help you with that.”

He describes hiring a consultancy firm as a way of connecting local knowledge that is often disconnected. “Everybody’s tied in to being both a supplier and a consumer,” Professor Considine says. “There’s a lot of data—it’s a very entangled kind of world. So the first and most important contribution an outside group can make is to bring a more objective viewpoint and methodology to all those data.”

“What we’re doing in this overall project is mapping all of those and trying to find out why they take as long as they do, and to see whether there are ways in which we could shorten them.”

There have been multiple channels for staff members to provide feedback through, and Professor Considine says there has been a lot of feedback at the time of writing. “We haven’t closed the consultation yet so I shouldn’t generalise about it. But already […] people are now engaging much more with the model as a model—rather than just individual bits.”

“A lot of the people who are making submissions now understand in much greater detail what the new operating model is meant to do,” he said.

Professor Considine flagged a “surge of material” that Marshman is set to release soon, but as for whether or not this will answer most queries, he is uncertain. “We’re in quite a specific industrial relations environment at the moment because the rules for consultation are set down in the enterprise bargaining agreement. And whether they’re good rules or bad doesn’t really matter. But they kind of govern what you should and shouldn’t do during this sort of period.”

“In general our view has been—as information becomes available—we release it.”