La Trobe Falls To Corporate Razor

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Last week La Trobe University proposed a major restructure of their Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. Titled the Organisational Change Impact Statement (OCIS), the proposal calls for a restructure of the traditional Bachelor of Arts in order to increase the university's "market share". As a result, 45 equivalent full time positions will go, and the range of subjects will be reduced from 1230 to 400.

At first glance, these proposals are merely following what is now a well worn path cleared by the University of Sydney and others that have recently experienced dramatic announcements regarding staff and budget cuts. What makes the changes underway at La Trobe distinct, however, is their particular focus on the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Whereas on other campuses wholesale cuts and job losses were announced institution-wide, the changes at La Trobe are — for the moment — focused on particular subject areas, namely gender, sexuality and diversity studies, linguistics, languages, art history, and religion and spirituality Studies.

The regional campuses — Albury-Wodonga, Bendigo, Mildura and Shepparton — are also set to have their Bachelor of Arts offerings stripped back to a choice of three dual majors at Bendigo and one at the remaining campuses.

Learning from the experiences on other campuses across Australia — notably Sydney Uni, where proposed staff cuts were rejected by Fair Work Australia for contravening the enterprise bargaining agreement — the statement released last week was primarily intended to meet the university's industrial relations obligations.

Beyond this it is a clear display of the kind of corporate jargon that Don Watson, himself a graduate of the La Trobe BA, would baulk at. The statement talks about "reducing staffing requirements" and "streamlining the curriculum in order to remain competitive in the sector", euphemising the material impact the proposals will have on staff and students.

These word games were also on display at the first student consultation meeting held in relation to the proposal. Despite being given a mere 24 hours notice at the tail end of the exam period, around 150 students met with the Executive Dean Professor Tim Murray on the Bundoora campus last Friday. A handful of others in the regional campuses participated via video link.

The meeting demonstrated the disconnect between staff and student expectations; the Dean insisted that students are demanding more flexible learning and online delivery, while the actual students present countered that they wanted more face to face class time and access to teaching staff.

Murray claimed that the current BA program was too broad and that potential students had complained that the wide array of subjects on offer was confusing, while the enrolled students present questioned the logic of a surplus of choice acting as a disincentive, pointing to it as the precise reason they chose La Trobe.

Professor Murray's refusal to concretely respond to student questions reflects the broader context in which the attack on the BA program is being conducted. As education becomes a product to be marketed, its worth is articulated in terms of perceived value rather than its social function. Hence the dominance of terms such as flexibility and choice.

This ideological shift in the role of education is cemented by government policy, such as the move at the beginning of this year to a funding model that emphasises increasing student "choice" by moving to a demand-driven or voucher system where the student is the customer and universities compete for their business by offering a range of attractive "products".

Paradoxically, however, the cuts at La Trobe are directed towards many of the best performing subject areas, measured by the university's own indicator of student demand and raw profitability. Gender, sexuality and diversity studies, for example, is run by one full time level B academic, whose salary costs less than the revenue brought in from their work teaching approximately 200 undergraduates per semester, producing around 30 majors a year and three honours students, with nine postgraduate completions in the last three years.

Carol D'Cruz, the program convenor in question, is both perplexed and distressed that one of the most cost effective and popular majors on offer at the university is the first to go.

"It does not make any sense to scrap the major whose very ethos is to promote the University's mission to promote cultural awareness and respect for diversity", she told New Matilda.

Looking closely at the OCIS report, it becomes clear that the areas under fire are not easily assimilated into the new model for higher education because they represent, in the words of the statement, an "out-dated Bachelor of Arts".

The classification of "out-datedness" seems to emerge not from students themselves but from university management. Calling for the development of more specialist degree programs in "significant new growth areas such as Community Planning, International Development, International Relations, Journalism, and Strategic Communications", the report equates fewer choices with specialisation in an effort to exploit student fears that they will not be able to compete in the job market.

This is accompanied by the introduction of a "Work Ready BA", where students are required to categorise their learning experiences in terms of "assets" that are self-recorded in their yearly "Work Ready Progress Report". Both of these initiatives are pointed to within the statement as positive improvements to the faculty in recent years and models that should be extended or emulated.

This is in line with the university's strategic plan, released on 15 June. Entitled World Ready 2017, it states that "we want our students to be 'work ready' and 'world ready' … As a result, our graduates will be renowned for their employability and for their deep understanding of some of the most pressing challenges facing the global community".

Read in light of the proposed axing of gender, sexuality and diversity studies, among others, what this seems to mean is that subject areas that aren't directly related to the production of a class of technocrats and public servants such as teachers are to be removed. While elite institutions such as the University of Melbourne look to reintroduce gender studies as a major, La Trobe seeks to recapture its "market share" as Victoria's third university by "streamlining" the curriculum to suit the needs of industry.

International development student Andrew Dwyer knows that within his chosen field of his training in gender, sexuality and diversity is highly useful. But he also recognises the broader set of intellectual skills the program has helped him develop.

"It's taught me not to do but how to think about the structural inequalities that exist in today's society," he told NM.

"As the university moves towards measuring work-ready competencies-based outcomes, it becomes harder to measure the worth of such a skill, however valuable that skill may be. Creating critical thinkers doesn't quite seem measurable in the university's KPIs. As a result, non-instrumental or less popular arts subjects render themselves less valuable in the 'business' of education."

Of course, students are already able to identify the value in their learning, both in terms of how it prepares them for the workforce and beyond. As the consultation process continues, hopefully La Trobe management will listen to them.

New Matilda has contacted Professor Murray for a right of reply, and this article will be updated with his response.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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