NTEU Submission on Formal Proposal to Disestablish the Distance Education Centre
NTEU Submission on Formal Proposal to Disestablish the Distance Education Centre
Staff consulted do not object in principal to the relocation of the Distance Education Centre (DEC) within the School of Agriculture and Food Sciences (SAFS). Both academic and professional staff do object to the concurrent reduction in capacity for the provision of distance education services for pedagogical, equity and workload reasons. The disestablishment appears to be a cost-shifting exercise which will benefit the current budget of the Faculty at the expense of student satisfaction and outcomes (particularly for low socio-economic status students), academic staff workloads, professional staff workloads in SAFS, Gatton Library staff workloads and may possibly affect the SAFS budget due to increased attrition in gateway courses.
It is clear that the DEC now provides services to primarily one School within the Faculty and should not be controlled or funded by the Faculty, but by the School it primarily services. Any services provided to other Schools in the Faculty could be provided on a fee for service basis. With respect to the “Key Drivers for Change” identified on page 3, staff have expressed some concerns.
“a. Following the establishment of SAFS, the DEC is primarily servicing one School in the Faculty of Science. Elsewhere in the Faculty, the functions provided by the DEC to SAFS are resourced and delivered from within the respective School.
b. Whilst the Faculty will continue to encourage and support the delivery of external and distance offerings, particularly from SAFS, ownership and responsibility for the delivery of these offerings should come from within the School. This approach is consistent with the broader management methodology in the Faculty of Science which allows our schools a high level of autonomy in managing their core business activities.”
The first point is moot as no other School in the Faculty provides external students with the support provided to SAFS students by the DEC. The move to relocate the DEC within SAFS is not contested.
“c. As a new School, with a new senior management team, the School has indicated that its preferred approach is to manage its external and flexible delivering program offerings from within.
d. As part of the 2011 Curriculum Review into UQ’s Agriculture Programs, it is likely that there will be substantial changes to program offerings which will affect DEC enrolments. In particular, the Assoc Degree in Applied Science will be discontinued – this is the second largest program administered through the DEC.
e. The current method of delivery does not make optimal use of contemporary information communication and technology tools. A primary method of delivery to students is via hard copy documentation delivered through the mail. Not only is this an expensive delivery mode, it is outdated and does not represent UQ or the Faculty in the best possible light.”
Staff are extremely concerned that the new senior management team of SAFS do not have a plan for the implementation of the absorption of the functions of the DEC. No plan is provided in the Proposal for the concurrent implementation of the Curriculum Review and taking on the DEC. No plan is provided in the Proposal for which of the duties undertaken by the DEC will no longer be done, which will be taken on by the staff transferring to SAFS, which will be picked up by academic staff, and which will transfer to Library staff.
Indeed staff state that the disestablishment of the DEC precisely at the time when there are significant changes to UQ’s Agriculture programs will prove disastrous. Changing the Agriculture offerings and the mode of delivery simultaneously is going to have a significant impact on academic and professional staff workloads.
Furthermore, there is a reason why the external offerings of SAFS do not “make optimal use of contemporary information communication and technology tools”. That is because many of the students that undertake external studies in SAFS have limited access to ICT options. They are often from rural and remote areas and often from low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds meaning that hardcopy delivery of materials is the optimal way of assisting their learning. This is particularly vital for first year students. Staff stated that this indicated a St-Lucia centric view of education and a lack of understanding of the student cohort at Gatton and studying externally.
There has been considerable consultation with staff in the DEC likely to be directly affected by the Proposal. Discussions about options for the staff to relocate or separate on a voluntary basis have occurred. Consultation is positive, but it appears that this has occurred in lieu of a thorough exploration of where the work will go and with a lack of consideration about the alternative, transferring the entire DEC or the majority of it into SAFS.
There has been less consultation with the staff in SAFS, academic and Professional, who are likely to be affected. The Proposal states at page 3 that the day to day activities of the Centre are:
“• to produce recommended schedules of study and residential school
timetables, and provide recommendations regarding policy and procedural
• to liaise and work with academics to develop learning materials, such as text
based, CDâ€ROM, video and audio;
• to coordinate the preparation and production of distance education materials;
• to dispatch learning materials to externally enrolled students;
• to accept submitted assignments for external students, track assignments and
return to students;
• to act as a central communication point for external students wanting to
contact teaching staff or the University generally;
• to liaise with first year coordinators over issues affecting first year external
• handle queries from students, prior to/during/after semester relating to their
Which of these tasks will go with the staff transferring to SAFS/the Faculty. Which will no longer be done? Which will be taken on by current administrative staff in SAFS? Which will fall to academic staff? Is there physical space in SAFS for the work to be undertaken? None of these questions are answered in the Proposal.
One clear workload impact is the change in method of delivery. There are different copyright requirements for electronic, as opposed to hard copy, course materials. One recent example is a hard copy book of readings that was transferred to Blackboard for a Summer Semester course. Library staff were required to check, source and create links for a reading list. There were about 50 readings, and Library staff estimate that it required approximately 14 hours to prepare these for electronic access. There will be other workload impacts from the change of method on academic staff in SAFS who currently favour hard copy and will need to adapt. The support staff for adapting materials are in the DEC.
DEC acts as a gateway for external students, making them feel part of the university. With the academic staff, they have the propensity to become treated as ‘extras’ in a course designed primarily for internal students. Thus DEC is one place they are treated as individuals and provided with the support they require.
The national equity funding, and targets to be set for Indigenous and low SES students, will mean that the Faculty of Science may become highly reliant on SAFS distance students for making its quota. It will be of benefit to the Faculty to look after this cohort very well, rather than risk attrition.
The DEC provides a strong element of quality control on course materials, both through editing of content, and an aspect of scrutiny that makes staff feel conscious about writing quality materials. Although second year and upwards students can probably download modules successfully from Blackboard, if existing learning guides are to be turned into modules, many staff will be tempted to make these less thorough than in the past.
2012 looks likely to be a year of considerable transition for SAFS. They will take over the role of DEC at a time when the academic offerings are changing and it is proposed that the method of delivery for external students will be fundamentally altered. This will have an impact on external students, particularly first year and low SES students. It is encouraging that the faculty has proposed to keep the current staffing profile (less one fixed-term part-time appointment that has not been renewed) until March to allow for a smoother transition. Members are primarily concerned with the current lack of planning and preparedness for what will occur after March 2012.
On an industrial note, of great concern is the lack of detail with respect to the budgetary position before and after the restructuring. Furthermore, there is no analysis of the workload impacts of the proposed changes. It appears from feedback that the primary focus of the Faculty has been on consulting with individual staff members in the hope that the matter would be considered a reorganisation rather than a restructuring. While consideration of the individuals directly affected by the disestablishment of the DEC is commendable, it should not have occurred at the expense of a detailed plan to deal with where the work will go, and what the effect on other staff will be.