This Is What A Funding Crisis Looks Like

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Ed Byrne, the Vice Chancellor of Monash University, one of the prestigious Group of 8 institutions, sent an email to all staff on 13 October last year about the "challenging market conditions" weathered by Australian universities. He got to the point quickly:

"Projections of international student enrolments and indications from our pipeline sources such as Monash College show that the University will not be immune from reduced international student demand. International student numbers for 2011 are predicted to drop by 10 per cent, at best. As many staff are aware, at Monash University international student fees account for more than 20 per cent of our annual income, so the drop will have a significant adverse impact upon the University’s budget. We need to reduce our planned expenditure for 2011 by around $45 million."

Byrne’s phrasing might have been managerial and convoluted but his message was clear: savings were required and spending cuts were on the horizon. It was a stark reminder of how dependent some of Australia’s biggest universities are on international student enrolment. With Monash investing large sums in a campus in South Africa and building programs underway on several of the university’s campuses, the drop in lucrative international enrolments couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Byrne announced the establishment of an Expenditure Review Committee and invited eligible staff to express interest in redundancy packages. By December, The Australian reported over 400 staff had taken him up on his offer and said yes to redundancy packages. Ed Byrne said at the time that "what we’ve gone through is not a random letting go of staff to meet a target but a significant restructuring of the university". Monash told New Matilda this week that the voluntary separation program ended in 2010 and that there are no plans to extend it this year.

The NTEU is still trying to ascertain just how many Monash staff took redundancy packages. They place the figure at closer to 500. NTEU officer Stan Rosenthal told New Matilda that some of his members were "vigorously approached" by the university and strongly encouraged to take redundancy packages. The result of these staff cuts has been an increased workload all round and concern about the prospect of future cuts. Of course, when we talk about staff changes at Monash, we’re talking about permanent staff. The sessional and casual staff who undertake a hefty portion of teaching weren’t offered redundancy packages.

Most international students at Monash are enrolled in Business and Economics programs; the Arts Faculty, with relatively low international student enrolments but a wide range of cost-intensive course offerings, is struggling to make the required cuts. The faculty has made big changes to undergraduate teaching which will have a big impact on the quality of education provided to students. The employment prospects for postgraduates in the Arts faculty will also be lopped.

In the School of English, Communications and Performance Studies, New Matilda was told that all upper level (second year and above) tutorials are gone. Monash calls this "trialling a new style of delivery at second and third year where a lecture/seminar format is being used by some staff to combine a mixture of lecture-style delivery and small group work within a larger seminar setting." Monash told New Matilda that the average size of these seminars is 25-30 students but off-the-record reports are that they more frequently swell from 50 to 100 students. These large groups will be the only contact some students have with teaching staff. As Stan Rosenthal observes, changes like these impede the ability of staff to provide quality education.

Tutorials are most frequently conducted by postgraduate students and early career researchers who are employed on a casual or sessional basis. A former tutor employed in the school told New Matilda that he was abruptly notified that all tutorials for 2011 were cancelled in late 2010. He’d expected to have work through 2011. Sessional and casual teaching pays the bills and is vital work experience for emerging academics. Less work experience will put postgraduate students at Monash at a considerable disadvantage when they compete for jobs — another challenging marketplace. Monash insists that employment opportunities will remain for postgrads but it’s hard to see how they will be funded when the university is under such acute pressure. John Nowakowski, president of the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations sees the restructure as a missed chance to engage some of the least powerful employees, postgraduates and research assistants, in new ways.

Academics love to complain that they’re losing their jobs to administrators but this may not be the case at Monash. One researcher in the faculty said, "they’ve cut admin staff very heavily, so much so that requests for info seem often to be answered with ‘that person’s gone, I’m not sure who does that now’." In November last year all staff in the Faculty received an email from Rae Francis, the Dean of Arts, bringing them up to date on restructuring of support services, with yet another reference to "challenging market conditions":

"Whilst the number and type of staff leaving Arts have not yet been confirmed, we are considering a different way of organising our remaining staff to ensure that we are able to effectively manage all of the key activities that are important to us over the next three to six months, as we also develop a more substantive response to the longer term operations of the faculty."

Monash teaches more undergraduate students than any other Australian university and maintains a strong international research profile. That an institution of this size and prestige is faced with making such big spending cuts is as good an indication as any of the funding crisis in higher education. And the consequences aren’t an abstract prospect, they’re here now and permanent staff, sessional staff, postgraduate students and undergraduates at Monash are all feeling the pinch.

 

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