U of A support staff fear more job losses coming with restructuring

Support staff at the University of Alberta claim their voices are going unheard in discussions about the school's looming restructuring.

Union calls for more consultation as school considers consolidating faculties

In response to reductions in provincial funding, the University of Alberta is preparing to make significant changes to its academic and administrative structures. (David Bajer/CBC)

Support staff at the University of Alberta claim their voices are going unheard in discussions about the school's looming academic restructuring.

With a goal of saving millions by 2022 and reducing dependency on provincial government funding — which has been reduced — the university is forming a transformation plan this fall, consulting with community members through town halls, roundtable discussions and online engagement tools.

Support staff are frustrated with the consultation process, according to Elizabeth Johannson, the president of the Non-Academic Staff Association. NASA represents cleaners, library personnel, researchers, lab assistants, nurses, tradespeople and other support staff at the university.

"They feel that the process that's happening isn't transparent and there are not a lot of avenues for actually having an impact or giving feedback," Johannson told CBC News on Thursday.

During Wednesday's hour-long virtual town hall on academic restructuring, President Bill Flanagan and Provost Steven Dew spent less than 15 minutes answering questions. An emailed statement from spokesperson Hallie Brodie said the school "heard feedback from our community and will provide more time for questions at future town halls."

Support staff, who have already seen hundreds of their colleagues lose jobs due to budget cuts, are telling the union they fear restructuring could come with even more job losses.

Reducing admin

During the town hall, Flanagan and Dew outlined three academic restructuring scenarios under consideration. They all involve consolidating faculties to save administrative costs.

The union president pushed back on that idea in an interview with CBC Edmonton's Radio Active.

"When people say that administration costs need to be reduced, everyone nods sagely," Johannson said.

What people don't realize, she said, is that cutting administration can mean closing libraries, reducing mental health supports and lengthening registration processing time for students.

The university is looking to other post-secondary institutions for examples of how to achieve its cost-saving goals.

In a recent report to the school, the international consultancy Nous Group found that the U of A has more faculties than peers with similar revenues and student populations.

The report's case study on the University of Sydney, which consolidated faculties in 2016, concluded that since the restructuring occurred, the school has "continued to experience success in maintaining its international research reputation, growing student numbers and improving research and financial performance."

Union representatives at the University of Sydney told members of NASA and the U of A's Association of Academic Staff (AASUA) a different story during a recent webinar.

The Australians said the restructuring may not have affected the school's research reputation, but it demoralized staff, who were laid off, then asked to reapply for similar but lower-paid positions.

The restructuring also had negative effects on students, one of the union reps said, with a centralized phone advising system replacing the more personal process that had existed within faculties before.

Unions ask to join planning groups 

Both unions asked to be part of an academic restructuring working group and a steering committee involved in the restructuring process.

Their requests were rejected last month.

U of A spokesperson Brodie said the unions are represented on the General Faculties Council and the Board of Governors, to which the working group and steering committee report.

During the town hall, Flanagan committed to meeting with NASA regularly, but Johannson said her members want to share their cost-saving ideas with senior leaders directly.

"They're very highly motivated to identify those things, but right now, there's not any way to feed that information into the system," she said.

Brodie said non-academic staff can participate in faculty-level roundtables and share comments through various platforms online, including between town halls.

The next town hall — which is focused on administrative restructuring — is scheduled for October 6.