La Trobe Protesters Take On VC


Protesters at La Trobe University’s Open Day have attracted the attention of more than just passersby. Since La Trobe vice chancellor John Dewar escaped students by using an underground tunnel network on campus the protests have attracted plenty of media attention.

This week Dewar took to The Conversation to condemn the protest as an "abuse" of freedom of speech. This was a change in tune from his initial defence of the right of students to protest. On Monday he told the ABC, "I think it adds colour and movement to life on campus, I think it’s fantastic!" He was later quoted in The Australian saying that "it looked worse on television than it actually was."

What was all the fuss about?

Huge cuts are proposed at La Trobe. Under the proposal, the university will fire 37 full-time academic staff at the end of this year, with that number to rise to 45 by the end of 2015.

At the same time, the number of courses is also set to fall: students will no longer be able to study art history, linguistics or gender, sexuality and diversity studies as a major at Bundoora; students at Bendigo will also lose religion and spirituality as a major program and a vast array of subjects in totality, including anthropology, sociology, politics and many others.

After months of unsuccessful attempts to engage with the university in meaningful discussions, the Stop the HUSS Cuts Collective occupied the grassed area in the Agora, a central space at the Bundoora campus. After the occupation concluded, university staff fenced the place off. Though the fencing was later used to isolate the erection of a marquee, the irony of the university administration fencing off the Agora (named for the meeting place and political hub of the Ancient Greeks) was not lost on students.

In his Conversation piece, Dewar claims the university asked for notice of protests and worked to find a way to preserve freedom of speech while allowing Open Day to proceed unhindered.

In reality, Dewar set aside a small area well away from the proceedings of Open Day and threatened students who engaged in protest outside this area with exclusion or expulsion. Non-students were threatened with arrest for trespass.

The Humanities faculty display at the Open Day was given a smaller space than in the past and staff were advised not to attend Open Day unless it was absolutely necessary. Clubs and societies were told not to attend. As we joked at the time, the banning of students, staff, clubs and visitors would probably have more of an impact on attendance than our plan to march to the Agora, hand out fliers and promote the humanities subjects we love so much.

If prospective students and their parents left with a sour image of La Trobe it wouldn’t have been because of the protesting — it would have been because no one had any idea what was going on.

Professor Dewar has been quick to point out that information was made available and consultation sessions were held at all campuses about the cuts. This is true — but it’s also important to add that the cuts were originally announced during the exam period and consultation sessions were scheduled during the holidays, when campuses are deserted (and, incidentally, when Professor Dewar himself was out of the state). Students at the Bendigo campus were shocked to discover they had not received notice of a student forum in July, ostensibly established to discuss the cuts.

It has been argued that the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences is not running at a profit and that students aren’t enticed by the current degrees offered by the faculty.

The first charge is demonstrably true — at first glance.

The Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences is not expected to meet its profit targets. Reading the Organisational Change Impact Statement (the document detailing the cuts) it is clear that the faculty has a projected shortfall of some $4.4 million — but if the faculty was not required to redirect part of its funds into a cross-faculty slush fund, this shortfall would be reduced to approximately $1.2 million. Removing faculty funding of international campuses and cutting executive salary bloat would likely dig into this shortfall.

On staffing costs, in 2011 La Trobe spent $3.7 million on nine executive salaries (pdf, p. 63); enough for nearly 55 full-time staff
on $68,000 a year. In La Trobe’s annual report, one unnamed executive
officer is listed as having received $720,000 in total last year,
inclusive of bonuses and allowances.

The university as a whole is currently operating at a profit of approximately $84 million (pdf, p. 21). Why can’t La Trobe redirect profits from other faculties to the Humanities and Social Sciences, especially given that La Trobe University was established as a specialist liberal arts institution?

And what about the claim that enrolments are falling? This may be the case but at La Trobe, the response to falling enrolments has been to sacrifice the diversity and depth of degrees on offer. By designing degrees to cater for the lowest common denominator, the faculty can hope to enrol and pass the maximum number of students possible.

In his book, Australian Universities: A Portrait of Decline, Dr. Donald Meyers gives an excellent account of how the dumbing down of the science program and expansion of enrolments at any cost at his institution resulted in many students being admitted to courses they didn’t have the skills or knowledge to pass. Many students were passed anyway so the faculty’s retention rates would not suffer.

It’s hard to see how La Trobe university will reclaim its reputation — and win back students — under the current approach. Professor Dewar’s aim to see La Trobe back in the top 100 list of universities seems especially remote.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.