Anger on the campus of despair

Harriet Alexander
Brisbane Times
17 June 07

When Isabella Trahn packed her possessions into boxes and flew to Singapore she was excited about the grand finale of her 34-year career with the University of NSW.

As head of information services, she was one of the university’s most senior staff members, but here was a unique opportunity to start a library from scratch at the new and much hyped Singapore campus, as well as earn cash for her retirement.

Just a few months later she got her grand finale, but it was anything but the one she had envisaged. The University of NSW Asia campus was unceremoniously shut, and the employment of Ms Trahn, who had devoted her life to the university since 1973, was terminated with the same payout as her colleagues who had joined three months earlier.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think [the vice-chancellor, Fred Hilmer] would come up and announce a closure,” Ms Trahn said. “It was a total shock to me, and I didn’t come out of it for a couple of weeks. I don’t think I’m out of it now.”

When Professor Hilmer flew out of Singapore after announcing plans to close the campus 3½ weeks ago he left the city-state seething in his wake.

In Sydney, the University of NSW is making a lot of the compensation packages it has offered to students to take up places at the Sydney campus, but in Asia, one of the main recruiting grounds for international students and academics, the university’s name is black.

The Straits Times devoted 15 pages to the story, and has since pursued it with a zeal that the Singaporean Government has done nothing to dispel.

Singaporean officials are believed to be furious at the blow to its plans to develop the nation as an education hub, in which the University of NSW Asia had featured prominently. But for the academics the issue is a personal one. They do not believe Professor Hilmer’s reasons for the closure and have engaged the solicitors Allan and Gledhill to fight for what they say is a breach of contract.

The staff argue that public comments by Singapore’s Minister of Trade and Industry, Lim Hng Kiang, contradict those of Professor Hilmer, and the reasons given by the university to close the campus are therefore untrue. The university has decided staff are entitled to a non-negotiable sum equivalent to 24 weeks’ pay, regardless of the length of time they were employed. This means employees such as Ms Trahn are not recognised for their long service.

Peter Waring, a University of NSW Asia academic specialising in business management, said staff believed the university had acted in bad faith towards them.

Some of them have bought houses and apartments, or signed long-term leases. One employee paid $100,000 to buy out the bond for her PhD to join the University of NSW Asia. The university has made a clinical psychologist available at the request of staff.

Dr Waring said he believed some of his colleagues were suicidal. “We trusted the university, and the university has let us down,” he said.

“The staff are of the view that the university’s reputation in Singapore has been severely damaged, and I’m not sure how the uni is going to recover from this.

“Tam Trahn, a professor in chemical engineering, first went to the University of NSW from Vietnam on a Colombo scholarship, which aimed at promoting ties between Asia and Australia. Since then he has devoted his life to building the relationship between the two, and only a few months ago he was persuading students to enrol.

Now he cannot look them in the eye. “Some students came up to me and said, ‘We listened to you. You were so passionate and enthusiastic. What happened?”‘ Professor Trahn said. “I could not say a thing.”

Bruce Stening, a professor in organisational behaviour and human resources management, sold his house in Canberra, moved his family to Singapore and enrolled one of his children in a local school. “I don’t think anybody expected to be made redundant, but they expected to be compensated and compensated reasonably,” Professor Stening said. “They’re treating this as a termination but termination is for somebody who has not performed in some way. The damage that the university will incur in terms of recruitment is going to be severe.”

The media manager for the University of NSW, Judy Brookman, is livid at what she says has been a lack of balance and accuracy in reporting of the closure, and that misinformation is being perpetuated as it is reported in the Australian or Asian media.

The university said it was giving professional and technical staff the benefit of four months’ notice, rather than the one month they were entitled to.

“The university has been working to find the best possible solution for UNSW Asia staff,” it said in a statement.

“With respect to redundancies, UNSW Asia is seeking legal advice to ensure that the employees’ taxation obligation is minimised consistent with the laws of Singapore.

“The decision to close UNSW Asia was a difficult one … We believe there is an understanding that we had no choice but to take the action we did, and that we are doing our utmost to safeguard the welfare of the students involved.

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