The University of Newcastle, Australia

The wider context of decision-making

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

During the past month there has been a range of discussions, reflections and messages from staff on the University's contract with Transfield Services (TS), which delivers facilities management and maintenance services.  Individuals were often motivated to express their concerns about the government policy in relation to the offshore processing and detention of vulnerable asylum seekers.

VC Professor Caroline McMillenAs a member of a regional and a national community grappling with events which have and continue to drive people from their homes across the world and which have tested the responses of many governments to this mass migration, I understand and share these concerns.

Within the University and wider Hunter communities, there will be a range of strongly held opinions about government migration policy and its impact on the businesses that provide services to people in detention centres. It is of course appropriate for a University to foster open, respectful debate in these and other difficult issues. Universities are also places where such issues are tackled through engagement of expertise with evidence and rigour - these are the skills that add value in working through difficult issues.

As outlined earlier, the University has wanted to introduce a more efficient facilities management and maintenance system for some time. The old arrangements were fragmented and expensive and limited our ability to invest funds in education and research. We, like many universities, are focussing on ensuring we deliver a good student experience, maintain good terms and conditions for our staff and build financial sustainability. We also want to support campus jobs for local businesses and workers. In this context we needed an outcome that would benefit students, staff and the Hunter community.

An 18-month process established there were few organisations qualified to deliver what was required across all our campuses. TS is a long-established major local supplier of services. The NSW Government contracts TS to service all of the Hunter's local primary and secondary schools, TAFEs, NSW Fire Brigade stations, Court Houses and Ambulance stations. Close to 3,000 local people work for TS in our community and their work is well regarded.

The TS contract has, in addition to saving much needed money on services, provided ongoing employment for more than 100 local people employed by TS and many more who work as subcontractors to maintain our facilities. This includes the Delando Corporation, the disability employment agency that manages our ground maintenance. There was a need to balance these requirements with the publicly available information on TS in relation to their broader activities as a company which employs some 25,000 people.

Our University has been and will continue to be committed to supporting refugees in our region through the remarkable volunteer work of our students and staff, through the 'bit extra' that we put in each day to support the displaced and the disadvantaged and through our scholarship support which helps build new lives. This is important work, as is the work that staff in our TAFEs, local secondary and primary schools contribute to ensuring refugee families have access to education pathways at all levels across our region – it is education which transforms lives.

I would reflect that the current debate is not a debate which has arisen because our and other universities, TAFE and primary and secondary schools use TS and their associated companies to employ local workers and provide services - it has arisen because we live in Australia at this time.

I hope the comments above provide perspective and outline the wider context that has informed and continues to inform University decision-making. The work that the University does across our region to support bright people from all backgrounds realise their potential is something in which we can all take much pride.


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