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Opinion: Behind the Support Services Review

Thursday, 15 June 2017 12:14pm

Since September 2015, Otago has been undergoing a Support Services Review. In an opinion piece which also appeared in today’s Otago Daily Times, the University’s Human Resources Director Kevin Seales explains the reasoning behind it.

Kevin-Seales-image-small
Otago Human Resources Director Kevin Seales.

With more than 3800 equivalent full-time staff and over 18,000 equivalent full-time students, the University of Otago is the size of a small city, and in fact has about the same population as the entire Waitaki District.

As an institution like ours evolves and grows, it does so not only as one large entity but also in its component parts, be they divisions or schools or departments. As a result, duplication and local solutions can creep in, and opportunities to make institution-wide improvements in efficiency, enabled, for example, by technology, are not always realised as easily as they could be.

In the context of an organisation that currently employs some 2300 general staff to support our teaching and research and to provide the best possible experience for students, we need to stand back and ask: Is this the most effective and efficient way for our University to operate?

The Support Services Review aims to answer this by taking a broad look at how such services are offered across the institution. It has been more than 25 years since such a wide-ranging view of how the university organises itself was undertaken. That last review, which set up our current academic division structure, was undertaken in the 20th century when we were roughly half the size we are now.

"The University of Otago has a duty to the people of Dunedin, Otago and New Zealand – and to our students – to use their money as efficiently as it can in its support of teaching and research."

So it is timely for us to take stock of our support services, and how they should be configured to reflect changes to our environment, and how we intend to operate in the future.

The need for this review was made explicit by the university’s strategic plan, Strategic Direction to 2020. This strategy states that “universities must evolve to meet the challenges of a changing world” and says that “particularly when funded from public sources, they must also be mindful of the need to manage risk effectively and use resources efficiently”.

These statements highlight our responsibility as a publicly funded organisation. The University of Otago has a duty to the people of Dunedin, Otago and New Zealand – and to our students – to use their money as efficiently as it can in its support of teaching and research.

It is also important to look at the changes in the wider sector we work in. A number of the leading universities in Australia and New Zealand have already completed similar reviews in recent years and are seeing the benefits of having a clearer focus when it comes to supporting teaching, research and scholarship. Those that have not yet done so are undertaking such reviews now, or planning them.

As you might expect in an organisation as large and complex as the University, the review itself is a major and complicated piece of work. For that reason, it will also take time and will present challenges along the way.

"I recognise the review is creating anxiety and uncertainty for general staff and I can assure them we will do our utmost to minimise this and offer support."

While I acknowledge the timeframe makes it more stressful for the general staff involved, it is imperative that we do it correctly and fairly to ensure the best results for all. I stand by my comments that the level of consultation and engagement with staff has been unprecedented, and this will continue throughout the review.

There is no financial or staffing target to reach in the review and there is significant flexibility as to what might happen next when the steering group weighs up the options at the end of it. In anticipation of any changes, the university has been employing new people on fixed-term agreements for now.

We need services which support the University as well as they can. We also want to create clearer career pathways for general staff that provide them with roles that are interesting and engaging.

I am grateful to staff for supporting the review and for taking part in consultation efforts. I recognise the review is creating anxiety and uncertainty for general staff and I can assure them we will do our utmost to minimise this and offer support.

All staff are encouraged to continue to engage constructively with the review team as we work towards our ultimate goal of remaining one of the best universities in the world.

Do you want to have your say on the Review?

You can visit the Have Your Say section of the Support Services Review webpage.