La Trobe plans to butcher 'unprofitable' faculty

The La Trobe University Management Council on June 20 announced a proposed major “restructure” of the university’s Humanities and Social Sciences (HUSS) Faculty. The proposed changes, announced in an “Organisational Change Impact Statement” (OCIS), would cut up to 45 full-time staff from the faculty, slash the available courses from 1230 subjects (available on rotation) to fewer than 500 and reduce by 55% the majors available to students.

Littered with corporate and marketing jargon, the June 20 OCIS sought to justify the gutting of the faculty by arguing that the current curriculum is not meeting student needs and that the diverse range of subjects available had “been seen by students as difficult to navigate”. However, the real reason for the proposed cuts is the desire to corporatise the university curriculum in order to win more “market share” within the lucrative “education industry”.

The OCIS argued that “the Faculty has had lower than expected enrolments in 2011 and 2012 and its market position in terms of its ability to attract high quality and adequate number of students is in decline”. According to the OCIS, “the market is a key determining factor in shaping the future curriculum” of the faculty, which “must focus and streamline its curriculum to be competitive in the sector” with other Melbourne universities such as Melbourne and Deakin.

The OCIS also claimed that one of the reasons for the “restructure” was an “immediate budget shortfall of $4.36 million against the 2012 budget, including $2.34 million due to lower than expected enrolments”. However, as the Australian newspaper noted on June 21, the budget shortfall was not due to the unsustainability of the faculty but to university management seeking “to secure $4.3 million in savings in order to meet a council-set target of achieving a 3 percent return on revenue”.

Corporatisation

Five days before the university issued the OCIS, La Trobe Vice-Chancellor John Dewar released a “strategic directions” paper, which also foreshadowed increased corporatisation of La Trobe’s curriculum. The June 15 paper is a precursor to a new strategic plan that La Trobe management planned to release, called “World Ready: LaTrobe in 2017”. The central focus of the paper was on repositioning La Trobe’s teaching focus and curriculum on “employability” and “skills”.

The increasing corporatisation of La Trobe is part of increased pressure on universities to adopt a wholly market-driven agenda rather than educating for critical thinking. Over the last 40 years, the Australian education system has increasingly been changed to fit the requirements of big capital. This has included massive funding cuts, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, the introduction of user-pays and increased corporatisation, both in relation to curriculums and on campuses themselves, where private companies are being contracted to provide services once provided by student services.

Big capital sees education first and foremost as an “industry” that needs to make a profit, like any other capitalist industry. Secondly, the primary role of education under capitalism is to reinforce and maintain the social status quo by producing individuals who will fit into the capitalist production line.

This can clearly be seen in relation to the courses and subjects slated to go as part of the proposed HUSS “restructure”, which either do not fit the immediate needs of big capital or focus on knowledge, critical thinking and culture. These include linguistics, art history, religion and language, including Indonesian, while Chinese, Japanese and Spanish face possible reductions in staff. Also slated to be cut is the university’s highly popular and profitable “gender, sexuality and diversity” (GSD) course, which is run by one full-time academic and which enrols more than 200 students per semester. Over the last three years it has produced approximately 30 majors, three honours students and nine postgraduate completions. Ironically, while La Trobe management is preparing to dump GSD, Melbourne University has announced that it will be reintroducing a gender studies major in 2013 due to the importance of the field to the community and research.

As many students have noted, one of the main reasons that subjects like GSD are being targeted is because while the subject develops critical thinking skills of students, as well as other skills they find useful in post-education employment, its teaching outcomes are not as easily quantifiable as the “work ready” subjects being promoted in the OCIS.

Strong opposition

The proposed cuts to the HUSS faculty have been strongly opposed by the La Trobe student union, students and staff.

While a four-week “consultation” period was set for students and staff to voice their opinions and objections, the period conveniently coincided with mid-year student exams and the holiday break, ensuring that many students would not be aware of the proposed restructuring until the last few days of the consultation period.

Despite this, many students have started to mobilise and campaign against the proposed cuts, accusing university management not only of a lack of vision but of also undermining students’ education. Despite receiving less than 24 hours’ notice of the first “student consultation” meeting, which took place during the university exam period, more than 150 students on the Melbourne Bundoora campus attended.

According to Michelle Carmody, in an article in the June 27 New Matilda, what was evident from the meeting was “the disconnect between staff and student expectations”. Carmody noted that while the humanities and social science dean, Tim Murray, who is responsible for implementing the cuts, “insisted that students are demanding more flexible learning and online delivery”, the students present at the meeting “countered that they wanted more face to face class time and access to teaching staff”.

This sentiment was also abundantly evident at the second student consultation, which took place on La Trobe on July 3. With approximately 120 to 150 students in attendance, all expressed opposition to the proposed cuts. Many students at the meeting demanded to know why, if the university made a profit of $84 million last year, management was proposing to cut 45 staff and 400 courses in one faculty.

Students also raised concerns about not being able to complete the courses they started and noted that the cuts would prevent them from completing a degree relevant to their post-university employment plans. Many demanded to know why the consultation period was so short and scheduled during the semester break.

Other students pointed out that the proposed cuts would undermine the ability of the university to provide a quality education, while many others said that one of the reasons they decided to attend La Trobe was because they opposed the “Melbourne model” implemented at Melbourne University and believed that La Trobe valued arts, humanities and social science.

Indonesian language students at the meeting, who are facing the prospect of losing face to face teaching staff and having to complete their courses online, noted that online teaching could not replace the high quality committed academic staff who were already teaching them.

Earlier in the day, humanities and social science students leafleted information sessions held on the Bundoora campus by the university for high school students considering enrolling at La Trobe. The leaflets noted that Murray and Dewar were “wanted” for “crimes against humanities” and pointed out the impact that the cuts would have on students’ education.

La Trobe Students Against the HUSS Cuts also organised a “Save Arts at La Trobe” rally on July 31 at noon in the Agora, when students returned to campus and the teaching semester started. For more information on La Trobe Students Against HUSS Cuts, visit: http://www.facebook.com/#!/groups/310458862380130/.

Direct Action — July 23, 2012