THE Live ANZ: academics working flexibly ‘must give up offices’

But preoccupation with the mundane sidelines universities from the main game, according to vice-chancellors

August 16, 2022
Green succulent in concrete plant pot with decorative shadows on a blue wall and table surface
Source: iStock

The “distraction” of second-order issues is hampering universities from addressing the key challenge of reshaping themselves for post-Covid realities, an Australasian forum has heard.

University of Auckland vice-chancellor Dawn Freshwater said too much of her time was consumed by questions of staff’s working conditions – for example, whether people working off-site should retain their offices.

“If we’re going to spend our time debating whether or not we keep book storage facilities for our staff, then [we] have lost the plot,” Professor Freshwater told THE Campus Live ANZ, hosted by Victoria University in Melbourne.

It “shouldn’t really be tough” to discuss whether someone on campus two days a week warrants an office, she said. “If that’s where the conversation is starting from, then we’ve lost sight of the purpose of the university.

“The bigger question for us is…whether we have been flexible or bold enough during the pandemic. Shifting monolithic institutions to online overnight feels like it’s bold, [but] we haven’t been as bold or as flexible as we like to think – there’s more to come. It would be great to have serious conversations about future prototyping.”

Swinburne University vice-chancellor Pascale Quester said her institution’s commitment to carbon neutrality sat uneasily with staff’s desire to “keep their office” despite working off-site at least two days a week.

Such expectations would see university administrations providing light and heating for “the family pictures and the pot plant”, Professor Quester told the summit. “From an environmental sustainability point of view, it makes no sense.

“If you want to have flexibility…to work two or three days, you have to give up your office. It’s not about the universities being commercial, it’s about being pragmatic. What are we prepared to let go in order to have new things that we didn’t have before? If we can reduce the footprint of the campus, we can invite in industry partners, and we don’t pay as much in depreciation.”

University of Wollongong vice-chancellor Patricia Davidson said the sector needed to “collaborate and be smarter” to meet the needs of contemporary students. She said too many people duplicated each other’s work. “How many people in Australia every day are writing curricula for statistics 101?”

Professor Freshwater said relinquishing obsolete practices was just as important as introducing fresh ones. “People don’t want to let go of the old things, but they want to do new things. And then, guess what? The workload is enormous. We’ve really got to learn to let go.”

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