UWS Economics Next For The Razor

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"We have an extremely successful honours program — it’s quite competitive with the sandstone universities. We actually take students that are maybe the first in their family to go to university, from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds compared to those that go to Sydney University and New South Wales, and often lower, on average, ATAR scores. But by the time they’ve finished their program, they’re competitive with students from the sandstone universities."

So says Dr Brian Pinkstone, Associate Professor in Economics at the University of Western Sydney. Pinkstone, like his colleagues, is proud of the economics course offered at UWS, pointing to the number of students offered cadetships by the likes of the Reserve Bank and Treasury departments around the country as evidence of its success.

But Pinkstone, like his colleagues, is now facing redundancy due to what critics are describing as a short-sighted proposal by university management to abolish its economics degree.

At first glance, it certainly appears a curious decision. According to a recent study by La Trobe University’s Tim Thornton, UWS’s pluralist approach to economics — in which they teach a full mainstream neoclassical approach to economics alongside heterodox critiques of that mainstream — represents a benchmark within the higher education sector in Australia. While the division of economics teaching and research into discrete economics and political economy departments "might be welcomed by some economists on both sides of the divide", Thornton argues the ideal future for the discipline is a collaborative one:

"One department that would appear to be laying the best foundations for such a future is the School of Economics and Finance at the University of Western Sydney. Its explicit stress on economic controversy (rather than consensus) and its embrace of both theoretical and methodological pluralism are consistent with such a vision."

Why, then, is the program under threat?

From UWS’s perspective, it’s simply — and perhaps predictably — a matter of funding constraints. UWS did not respond to a set of written questions before deadline, but is known to have placed the blame on falling student enrolments over the past couple of years, with particularly low numbers projected for next year’s degree.

But according to UWS economics and finance lecturer, Professor Steve Keen, the current low enrolments are not reflective of decreased demand for the course, but are rather an unintended consequence of the Federal Government’s decision to lift the cap on the number of students institutions can enrol.

"[This change has] stuffed up the entire planning process that universities normally go through," Keen says. "There tends not to be a particularly large gap between prospective enrolments and final enrolments. But now, because they’ve let universities offer as many places as they’d like, and Sydney Uni and [the University of]New South Wales have both done that, everybody’s put their first preferences down there.

"What’s going to happen is that they’ll fill [the courses]to capacity, and then they’ll say, ‘Right, everybody else below that cutoff point, look somewhere else’ [because the sandstones don’t have the capacity to enrol as many students as required]. And so we’ll go from prospective numbers being a reasonable forecast of actual numbers, [to]a drastic overforecast of numbers for the sandstones and underforecast of numbers for the non-sandstone universities."

But if the proposal to cut economics as a separate degree goes ahead, what Keen describes as a "panic response" will result in an unfortunate sting in the tail for prospective UWS students.

"When the students apply for positions at the non-sandstones, the supply won’t be there — we’ll have already shut the departments down."

While UWS has somewhat toned down the drastic nature of its original proposal, conceding that economics has a good chance of being kept on as a major and submajor within the Bachelor of Business degree, critics argue this is insufficient to maintain the unique nature of the department’s program.

"We must be careful and think of the consequences of this," said economics student Alison Lim, who is looking to study honours next year. "[The altered proposal] does save jobs and economics; however, it appears that there will not be any (or as many) advanced or specialist units in the major, thus devaluing the degree."

Professor Keen agrees, saying the long-term viability of the honours program under such an arrangement is doubtful. With only eight units of a typical 16-unit degree devoted to economics, he said, "there’s very little chance that we can give students enough economics, that they can actually walk into the honours degree and be able to write something that other universities would pass as an honours thesis."

Perhaps the element that has most surprised observers is the stated necessity for the swingeing cuts. While economics is among the disciplines most severely affected (languages are also particularly hard-hit), the cuts range across most of the university.

"It’s a huge change," Keen says. "You’d need to have an absolutely certified, drastic fall in revenue — a clear crisis coming in funding, and the university going into serious deficit, to justify changes of that nature."

But according to Lim, the agenda for tomorrow’s Board of Trustees meeting has revealed that the university will in fact report a record 50 per cent increase in its operating surplus.

"These cuts are not necessary," Lim says. "We have key players from the university making this clear at the Board of Trustees meeting this Wednesday, with students and staff travelling from all six campuses to show their support."

According to Keen, the consultation process has been less than comprehensive.

"They [management]had to be pushed into it by public feedback," he told New Matilda. "There was no way this was designed for consultation — we were given a two-week period for feedback, we were going to have a one-hour meeting about it — and that was going to be it, according to the original proposals.

"Put it this way — if you wanted to have consultation about a serious change at a university, you think you’d time it for one week before the final exams began?"

New Matilda

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