“Course optimisation” and the end of my time at the Family Action Centre

Last week I received a “Notice Invoking Contingency.” It started:

I write to advise that [your] position of Lecturer, Family Action Centre, can no longer be supported financially by the School of Health Sciences.

It was officially informing me that from January 2021 I will be working two-days per week, and then my position will finish at the end of October.

So after almost 18 years, my work at the Family Action Center will be over.

The University has been going through a “course optimisation” process and around 25% of the Uni’s courses (or subjects) have been “consolidated or discontinued”. This affects  530 courses. In addition, the Uni is discontinuing 8 undergraduate and 14 postgraduate degree programs, and “suspending” 4 postgraduate programs.

All the courses and degrees offered through the Family Action Centre (FAC) have been discontinued: the Graduate Certificate and Master of Family Studies will no longer be offered. Fortunately the family and community programs run by the FAC (e.g., the Hunter Outreach Program and SNUG) and much of our research, are safe.

Technically currently enrolled students can complete their degree, although in reality there will be very few relevant subjects for them to study. The five undergraduate courses we teach are all being discontinued:

  • Working with Men and Boys in Human Services
  • Foundations of Strong Families – Capable Communities
  • Prevention and Early Intervention in Family and Community Services
  • Integrated Practises in Addressing Vulnerability in Families and Communities
  • Family and community engagement: An introduction (which inspired this blog).

While some courses and degrees are being replaced or combined with others, some are are simply being axed, including our two degrees (as well as the Bachelor of Creative Industries and the Bachelor of Fine Arts). I find it ironic (and quite disturbing) that degrees and courses focusing on families and communities are being axed during a time that has clearly demonstrated the importance of families and social connections.

When I heard the number of courses to be axed, I felt very nervous about our courses and degrees. The academic work of the FAC is identified as the discipline of Family Studies. For a number of historical reasons, we are in the School of Health Sciences (SHS) in the Faculty of Health and Medicine (FHEAM) rather than the School of Social Science in the Faculty of Education and Arts. We are therefore not with other social sciences or social work.

So when FHEAM had to find courses and degrees to cut, I could see it being a fairly easy choice for them to drop Family Studies, which doesn’t really fit with most of their other degrees, doesn’t have the status of their other degrees, and is not a well-established or prestigious discipline. As it turns out I was correct about the eventual decision. We were not situated within a faculty that really valued (and maybe didn’t fully understand) what we taught and the nature of our research.

While I have found it hard to deal with the axing of courses I have worked at developing and teaching for 13 years, and am sad that my work at the FAC is finishing, what I have really struggled with is the way in which some of the issues involved have been handled.

I have no complaints about how I have been personally treated as an individual over the last few months. I have known for some time that, as a result of the changes, my position would be ending and, before receiving the letter, I met with the Head of School and somebody from human resources. Given the circumstances, it was a very good meeting: they were supportive, empathetic and looked after my interests. They were the ones who raised severance pay and, while severance pay is spelt out in the enterprise agreement, they suggested the best way to maximise what I was eligible for. Their suggestion will make a big difference to how much I receive when I finish next year.  

I do, however, have major concerns about the way in which the course optimisation (and associated issues) have been dealt with by the University’s management. For example, information about the ending of the degrees was withheld from FAC staff for an unacceptable length of time. As we should have been, those of us who were directly involved in the degrees were told as soon as possible. I can understand that, in order to prevent rumours, we were not to tell other staff at the FAC (probably around 20 people) what was happening. The changes however, were reported at a faculty meeting(with a video then available to all faculty staff) and discussed the next day at a meeting of the School of Health Sciences. After these two meetings (attended by over 100 people), the Head of School and the FAC Director were still directed not to say anything to non-academic FAC staff for several weeks.

We were in the ridiculous position where we could have told our colleagues to watch the recording of the Faculty meeting where they would learn something interesting about our degrees, but we weren’t allowed to tell them directly!

I  think this was unacceptable, was very disrespectful of staff, and showed little insight into the impact these decisions were having on staff.

Recently a senior university leader sent an announcement to all staff saying:

I am very pleased to report that last Thursday saw the confirmation of all course and program changes proposed in the Course Optimisation process by the University’s Program and Course Approval Committee (PCAC), the final stage in our governance process.

Further on, he wrote:

It follows that we now need to consider an altered education workforce as fewer courses are taught more sustainably, some are removed and new areas of learning and methods of delivery evolve.

To start by saying how pleased he was to report the changes without any recognition that the loss of so many courses, an “altered education workforce” meant that staff were losing their jobs and there could be negative impacts on many students was, I felt, highly insensitive. Nowhere was there an acknowledgement that for many staff this is a painful process involving the loss of important degrees and courses.

I, and I’m sure many other staff in the university, feel a real sense of sadness at the loss of courses and degrees that we have nurtured over the years. When I think of all the work that went into the establishment of the Family Studies degrees, and the care that was taken to ensure they were valuable for students, I feel a sense of grief. I was not one of the primary people who established and cultivated the degrees, but I was aware the work and care that went into them.

I am also very sad to see the family and community engagement course go. Since I first taught it in 2008, over 1600 students from over 50 different degrees have completed it. I have frequently updated and refined it so that it was current, relevant and interesting. It always received positive student feedback and was appreciated by many students. I still have ideas for how to improve it and think it offered a very useful introduction to important topics for many disciplines. I am not aware of any other course in the university that will teach this important topic It wasn’t axed because it was too small (this semester over 60 people completed it), it wasn’t relevant, it needed to be more multi-disciplinary or it received poor student feedback. It was axed because of the decision to close the discipline of family studies.

While I will continue working 2 days per week with the program Name.Narrate.Navigate until the end of October 2021,  I will lose all other employment after 18 years at the FAC (always on a yearly or a contingency contract). In some ways I’m looking forward to being employed only part-time as I have a lot planned with my voluntary work with the Alternatives to Violence Project. I’ll be 60 next year, I’m in a fortunate financial position, and it will be nice to have a slightly easier year. Not everybody is as lucky as me and there are many other staff in the university, mainly people on short-term contracts like me who will lose employment they rely on. The term “an altered education workforce” does not acknowledge the fact that many staff will lose their jobs.

I recently heard the Vice-Chancellor interviewed on the radio and he was inferring there had been no “forced redundancies” and saying they were getting rid of courses that had very few enrolments. Technically it may be true that there have been no forced redundancies, but I wonder how many people on casual or short-term contracts have lost their jobs already or will do so over the coming months? Again, it showed a lack of empathy and concern for people who have lost their jobs or who have been impacted by the decisions.

I know hard decisions must sometimes be made. I know that sometimes things need to be abandoned to make way for innovation and growth. But I do think some of the decisions made by the University have not been good ones, that the University leadership have not acted appropriately at times and it is very unfortunate that they have not shown more empathy and acknowledged the impact of the decisions they are making.  

If you liked this post please follow my blog, and you might like to look at:

  1. Blogging as an academic
  2. Teaching community engagement to students from 29 disciplines
  3. 7 principles guiding my work
  4. What are Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshops?
  5. 10 things I’ve learnt about strengths-based community engagement
  6. Name.Narrate.Navigate: a program for young people who use violence in their families

If you find any problems with the blog, (e.g., broken links or typos) I’d love to hear about them. You can either add a comment below or contact me via the Contact page.

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, environmentalist, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace, sustainability.
This entry was posted in Family Action Centre and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to “Course optimisation” and the end of my time at the Family Action Centre

  1. Pingback: Sustaining Community (sustainingcommunity.wordpress.com) – Full Analysis – Degao Tech

  2. Anonymous says:

    I am an avid reader of your blog. I find it really sad to hear your course is gone. I never had the pleasure to be your student in real life, but your blog has been a great learning tool and has allowed me to reflect on my practice. I have often shared your posts with my colleagues.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sorry to hear this Graeme. I hate how universities frame these events… ‘optimising the curriculum’ what does that even mean? At QUT, replacing all frontline staff with a team of hurridly-prepared (though very earnest) students was called ‘enhancing the student experience.’ Yeah right. Glad you are OK and that I will be able to continue learning from your blog. I hope you and your colleagues all find interesting, worthy and appropriately – renumerated employment soon.

    Like

  4. Bianca Bartlett says:

    I am deeply sad to hear this news, Graeme. Engaging Families and Communities has been the most practical, and one of my favourite, courses in my whole masters program. This is a great loss to UoN.
    I hope the University sees sense and reinstates it in some capacity…
    All the best with you next adventures,
    Bianca

    Like

    • Thanks Bianca. One of the things that I really enjoyed about the postgraduate course was learning from people who were working in the field. There so many people doing interesting work. I’m really glad you find it useful.

      Like

  5. Brenda Ambler says:

    Very sad for you, you certainly did a great job with programs and work for the comunity.

    Like

  6. Nic Stuart says:

    Still trying to process how this can happen: from the broader social framework that insists the structures in which we live our lives (families) are less important than the structures in which we work (business); the university, for accepting this; and the callous way in which the changes have been implemented. I’m so sorry. I will speak to you soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Really sorry to read this. I have learned so much from your blog and often direct people to it, including colleagues here at the University of Edinburgh in the UK.

    Like

  8. Vaughn John says:

    Really sorry to read of this loss Graeme. Sounds like poor decisions and a poorer process. The broader community that universities serve and who fund universities, sadly don’t have a say in such decisions.

    Expecting the best for you and your other work.
    Take care
    Vaughn

    Like

  9. Gillian Hall says:

    Hi Graeme,

    Sorry to read your news, and thank you for writing and sharing this article.

    So many people I respect for the good and much needed work they are doing, are leaving universities.

    I hope you’ll keep writing and publishing on your web site. I really appreciate the wisdom you share with everyone.

    I live on the Sunshine Coast, Qld.

    Slowly adjusting to big changes this year, and my dad died a few weeks ago. So much to process.

    Emerging from the National Compassionate Communities Research Project, a local issue was identified, and we are starting a not for profit, community owned and led funeral enterprise. To address numerous, significant issues including financial hardship, by providing culturally respectful and inclusive services.

    https://m.facebook.com/funeralssc/?ref=page_internal&mt_nav=0

    Building community around funerals, and our relationships and exploring our beliefs are a big part of this work. Hence the interest in your work.

    All the best for the holidays, and hope we can chat soon.

    Thank you … warm regards, Gillian

    Gillian Hall

    Community Lead Funerals Sunshine Coast and Regions Qld M: 0403 605 866

    On Sat, 19 Dec. 2020, 11:58 am Sustaining Community, wrote:

    > Graeme Stuart posted: ” Last week I received a “Notice Invoking > Contingency.” It started: I write to advise that [your] position of > Lecturer, Family Action Centre, can no longer be supported financially by > the School of Health Sciences. It was officially informing me” >

    Like

  10. Helen says:

    I’m so sorry to hear this Graeme. It’s disrespectful, insensitive and wasteful.
    Thanks for all the leading work the FAC has undertaken over the years. 🙏🌹🙏

    Like

    • Thanks Helen.
      I should have said (and I have added it) that fortunately the family and community programs run by the FAC (e.g., the Hunter Outreach Program and SNUG) and much of our research, are safe.

      Like

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