November 29, 2016

The Australian National University... [With links...]

A little over a year ago the Canberra Times, the local newspaper in Australia’s capital city, ran a story announcing that the insurance premiums paid by the Australian National University (ANU) had risen from around $4 million to $11 million per annum over the last three years.

A statutory authority of the Federal Government, Comcare provides workplace insurance for several government agencies, including the ANU. While the premiums it charges them have on average doubled over this period, the ANU has been singled out for a particularly dramatic increase.

Why might this have occurred? The advice on Comcare’s website is unequivocal. It states that the “rate for each employer provides an indication of the employer's effectiveness in preventing injury or illness and in helping employees return to work quickly and safely after a work-related injury or illness.”

When pressed for its own explanation, the ANU however argued that the insurer was merely trying to recoup recent operational losses.

A detailed, forensic, rebuttal of ANU’s reasoning would require access to the kind of sensitive financial and operational information that Universities and Insurers alike are these days loathe to release. But if we take Comcare’s advice at face value and conclude that the increase must be explained, at least in part, by a decline in work safety at the ANU, what might be its source?

University employees are, as a matter of course, at risk of injuris that arise from such activities as repetitive strain, operating laboratory equipment, or work-related travel. Such injuries when they occur, however, are generally well reported and workplace responses can be both swift and effective. Neither seems to be the case here.

The obvious source of this dramatic growth, then, is psychological injury, in particular that arising from alleged workplace bullying and abuse. Certainly, the particular prevalence of such behaviours at the ANU has been brought to the attention of both the current and previous Vice Chancellors, and many recent instances have resulted in successful Comcare claims.

This should be a matter of considerable institutional and public concern. Bullied staff can lose much more than their job and career path. They can also be left with long-term psychological disability. No organisation, let alone an organisation supported by public funds, and with an explicit public good as its underlying remit, should consider the prevalence of such a state of affairs as acceptable.

Staff at the ANU are especially vulnerable to toxic work practices because, unlike other Australian Universities, they do not have recourse to an ombudsman or similar ‘disinterested’ arbitrators when there are allegations of internal wrong-doing.

It is all too easy for senior management and HR staff to become judge, jury, and executioner when confronted with issues of staff behaviour. Senior Management also has access to funds to pay out difficult cases, funds that almost invariably come with associated ‘gagging clauses’ to ensure that the possibility of underlying managerial and cultural problems remain hidden from further scrutiny.

It is especially concerning, then, to learn that the University has now been taking the advice of its Council and actively encouraging claimants to avoid Comcare altogether. They are being asked instead to approach their industry superannuation fund for disability cover, effectively bypassing Comcare’s powers of scrutiny as well as transferring the financial burden back to the employees themselves. At the same time ANU is also now seeking to remove itself altogether from the Comcare scheme and self insure.

This raises the real spectre of the proverbial turkey being in control of Christmas. There is a growing perception at the ANU of a nexus between staff who raise matters of legitimate concern and staff subsequently being confronted with unsafe managerial behaviours. It suggests that behaviours injurious to the health of employees are not merely the result of the actions of a few ‘bad eggs’, but are in fact becoming a normalised tool of University industrial relations. As former ANU academic, David West, recently wrote:

The modern university most rewards those who demonstrate both loyalty to superiors and effective control of subordinates. Good managers are those who gets things done, which tends to mean that they are not hampered by either sensitivity for others’ feelings or democratic scruples. They are assessed according to results rather than the methods they employ, by ends rather than means. It is little surprise, then, that managers are sometimes tempted to resort to a more intense regime of control. The rhetoric of instruction and compliance has largely replaced the more collaborative discourse of request and consent.

More traditional academic cultures of management by consensus, on the other hand, requires Universities to select leaders skilled in internal communication and conflict resolution, and to foster not just mission statements but also broader corporate cultures that are premised on values of honesty, competency, and shared vision.

Long abandoned governance structures that used to give academic staff a controlling stake in deciding who led them, from Head of Department right through to Vice-Chancellor may have had their critics, but at least they helped encourage such cultures to survive, if not flourish.

What has tended to arise in their place, as researchers in the US have found, is based on a much more negative perception of employee capacity, responsibility and core motivation. Trust in staff is replaced by demands for constant scrutiny. Managerial appointments are now routinely made from above without genuine staff consultation, and they are secured by the emergence of massive salary divide between this new class of academic leaders and the staff they manage. 

A culture of mobbing” can all too easily follow wherein apparently ‘non-compliant’ academics can quickly find that they can easily be stripped of the capacity to function in, let alone, enjoy, their workplace.

To be sure, it is not just the institution as a whole or the individual victims who suffer from this growing toxicity. We are all the worse for it. The burden of pay-outs, legal and medical costs, and, indeed, insurance premium blowouts that inevitably follows is eventually carried by a combination of increased student fees (or poorer student services) and the general taxpayer. 

Most concerning, however, is the possibility that such an industrial culture serves also to undermine the capacity of universities to nurture free thought in our society. In the light of recent political events, that role has never seemed more important.

Workplace bullying and abuse of staff is a symptom, therefore, of a much deeper malaise. Our universities urgently need to apply some of their once hard-won, and much-vaunted, critical thinking skills to the way they run themselves. And it is time for senior leadership at the ANU in particular to make safe and easy for the academic and professional staff they manage to do so.

No comments: