Factual errors in Vice-Chancellor Dewar’s article: the value of the Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe University
In accounting for the cuts to the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, the Vice-Chancellor of La Trobe University Professor John Dewar’s recent contribution to The Conversation (28August) contains at least four important errors of fact and one debateable interpretation.
Incorrect subject to student ratios
First, Professor Dewar suggests that La Trobe University needs to streamline its courses in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences because, “currently we offer one course for every seven students”. This figure should rather be one subject for fourteen full-time equivalent students enrolled in the Faculty.
The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) has continually asked management at La Trobe to correct their calculation of the number of subjects offered to students each year. Initially, management arrived at a figure of 916 subjects, by double-counting subjects offered to both second and third year students. Conceding this point, management has since revised the calculation down to 718. However, this figure of 718 is still far higher than the actual number of units annually taught, as it includes “reading subjects” that do not involve lectures and tutorials and which rarely receive enrolments at all, and it also over-counts subjects in the Languages by triple and quadruple by counting those units offered to language students at different levels and years. There are, for example, sixty-six too many subjects listed for the Asian Languages with even more counting errors for the European Languages.
Following careful analysis of the listed subjects, the NTEU estimates that the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences actually currently teaches around 500 subjects per year. This generates a very different subject-student ratio to the Vice-Chancellor’s. The Vice-Chancellor refers to 916 subjects against a 2010 enrolment of 7,163 equivalent full-time students, which is one subject for every 7.8 students. When this is adjusted to reflect the subjects that are actually being taught in 2012 – approx 500 – we get a figure of one subject for 14.3 full-time equivalent students (which is an average of 114 per class, since students do 8 subjects per year). It is also worth noting that this subject-count includes low-enrolments subjects like some of the language units, as well as the subjects offered to the regions.
Subject offerings compared to those of our competitors
Second, Professor Dewar suggests that the number of subjects offered by the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences is more than three times the equivalent ratio for our local competitors.
The NTEU has requested details about the source of this information and has been advised that subject numbers of local competing institutions was determined by consulting the websites of other universities and through emails from other institutions, of which requests for copies have been refused. However, given that we actually offer around 500 subjects (and not 913, as La Trobe University initially claimed), it is not clear that there is, in fact, a significant difference between our subject offerings and those of our competitors, especially when we consider that La Trobe needs to offer subjects on five separate regional campuses.
Moreover, many of these subjects also comprise offerings for fifteen “niche” degrees (including, for example, Bachelor of International Relations, Bachelor of International Development, Bachelor of Journalism etc.), which means that La Trobe University cannot simply discontinue units in its Bachelor of Arts. Assuming, then, that subjects cannot be dramatically reduced, what impact will the severe reduction of 41 full-time equivalent academic staff have on the workload of remaining academic staff in the Faculty who are already overworked? How will academic staff be able to continue their research alongside teaching? These are questions that the University has continually been unable or unwilling to answer, which is why it currently faces Fair Work Australia in a dispute with the NTEU over unacceptable consultation processes and provision of insufficient information about workload impacts, as required by the Collective agreement.
Understated redundancy figures
Third, Professor Dewar states that the University “intend[s], reluctantly, to make 37 staff redundant in the faculty, down from an initially proposed 50”. Again, this is simply incorrect. 41 full-time equivalent staff will be made redundant, 37 of which are to go before the end of 2012, with 4 to be phased out over the next three years.
Student enrolments are increasing not decreasing
Finally, Professor Dewar states that the staff redundancies will be drawn from areas where student enrolments have been “at a record-low for a number of years”. Quite frankly, anyone who has looked at the enrolment figures in the official May 2012 budget will find this claim hard to swallow. The Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences reached its 2012 yearly enrolment target by the first semester census date, exceeding its target at the Bundoora campus by 11%. Although it is true that 2011 enrolments were down on expectations, 2011 was an exception and not the norm. In 2012, enrolments were up across the faculty at the start of the year, in English, Sociology, Politics, and many other areas.
And this is precisely why academic staff in the Faculty are finding the deep level of the proposed cuts difficult to accept. In a context where programs are, in general, retaining or increasing their student load, History will lose 43% of its staff, Sociology will shed 37% and many other areas will lose around 30% of their staff. It is an exaggeration, at the very least, to say, as Professor Dewar puts it, that students are voting “with their feet” for a smaller Humanities and Social Sciences faculty. Indeed, quite the opposite is happening. Not only were enrolments up at the start of 2012, student survey results captured on the MyUni website (myuniversity.gov.au) provides an overall satisfaction rate of 86.7% for the generic category of humanities including history and geography, an 88.8% rate for language and literature, and a 92.7% overall satisfaction rate for political science. Interestingly, these satisfaction ratings are significantly higher than those at the University of Melbourne.
Will the university support research?
In addition to these four errors of fact, Professor Dewar’s article contains a debateable presentation of La Trobe’s commitment to research. Professor Dewar states that the University intends “to continue the university’s fine reputation” in research in the humanities. He is certainly correct that La Trobe has an enviable reputation in this area, not only in relation to Excellence in Research Australia measures but also in its contributions to public debate. Indeed, Professor Dewar could have gone still further to acknowledge that research in Arts at La Trobe was ranked in the top 25 in the world in 2006 by the Times Higher Education Supplement. Unfortunately, it is hard to resolve the University’s stated commitment to such research with the increasing workload in teaching and administration that is expected to follow from such deep cuts to staffing levels. How will the remaining academic staff have time to pursue their research under such conditions?
An inadequate federal funding model
In closing, the question must be raised as to why Professor Dewar included these errors of fact. If his presentation of inefficiency in the Humanities and Social Sciences is inaccurate, what are the University’s real reasons for cuts of this magnitude? And here we come to the crux of the matter. The real reasons are a complex combination of factors that lie in tension with each other, and that, in part, originate in external funding models and external evaluatory pressures. These include: 1. A desire to increase La Trobe’s research rankings; 2. A federal system of research funding that favours the sciences and the applied social sciences; 3. A federal base funding model that provides a fixed amount per student-type that is nowhere near enough to cover the real cost of a student’s education; 4. A new deregulated federal system where caps to student numbers are removed, increasing competition among tertiary providers and thereby making it difficult for universities to predict their enrolment numbers from year to year.
These complex factors coalesce to produce the unfortunate situation in which Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences faculties across the country are called on to increase their cross-subsidisation of more costly areas of the University such as Science, in an environment where yearly fluctuations in enrolments in an uncapped market now forces universities to orient themselves toward flexible staff provision. Sadly, at La Trobe University this now entails a decrease in full-time continuing staff in the Humanities and Social Sciences with an associated, anticipated increase in casual staff.
Regrettably, as is clear by the 2012 La Trobe University budget, management have made a strategic decision to sacrifice the quality of teaching and research in the Humanities and Social Sciences, so as to cover the higher costs of degrees in other areas. Ironically, in so doing, management may well be undermining its ability to continue to use Humanities and Social Sciences as a source of revenue. In conclusion, and having corrected the errors of fact in Professor Dewar’s contribution to The Conversation, we ask La Trobe not to push through cuts of this magnitude to the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, for the sake of the quality of teaching and research, and to ensure the future of the University as a whole.