Why cuts are damaging the ANU's reputation
The following opinion piece by ACT Division Secretary Stephen Darwin originally appeared in the Canberra Times newspaper on May 17.
Judging by his article in The Canberra Times (''School's future must be secured'', May 15, p13) ANU vice-chancellor Ian Young is clearly a man on a mission. This mission, as demonstrated in his latest attempts to take on the School of Music after failing on a broader level across the ANU, is straight from the increasingly tired strains of economic rationalism.
He has taken to lecturing the university community on the danger of modest surpluses, the perils of any local ''deficits'', the obsessive need to control costs and outlaw cross-subsidies. He bemoans the inability to reach lofty financial benchmarks and looks for cheaper ways of doing things. In essence, the role of the current ANU vice-chancellor has become akin to an intellectual bookkeeper.
However, Professor Young is leading Australia's national university. He is entrusted with a rich and prestigious institutional legacy for the highest quality research and teaching. This reductive economic rationalist thinking mortally threatens this legacy, offering the real prospect of increasing mediocrity and metric-led conceptions of effectiveness.
The initial proposals for widespread cuts in ANU disciplines and the more recent move on the School of Music are radical expressions of contraction. No expansive thinking here, only the now ubiquitous ''living within our means''.
Even though disciplines (including music) have been a valuable part of the important diversity of the national university for generations, the current balance sheet with the gross limitations of at least a $14 million surplus demands excision.
All in the pursuit of some future abstract conception of excellence (should future balance sheets allow it). Sadly, this path is inevitably going to prove futile and its time for the ANU to again think as expansively, collaboratively and creatively as it once did.
These rationalist arguments have self-evidently now failed to convince the ANU staff and student community. Increasingly, they are also poorly resonating outside the university.
Students, academics and administrative staff are drawn to the ANU because of its excellence as Australia's leading university. The current fascination with cuts and reductions is damaging rather than enhancing this perception.
For instance, the disastrous move on the School of Music is clearly creating questions in student, staff and the communities mind about future quality of teaching, particularly if a new curriculum forces the exodus of a large number of highly renowned academics in the field and a reliance of a more precarious form of instruction.
Overnight, a once prestigious School of Music may be reduced to a mediocre site of learning due to cuts. So how on earth does such economic rationalism produce long-term quality in a university? It simply has the opposite effect.
So what is the alternative? It was once that a vice-chancellor stood up for their university. They fought with local and Commonwealth governments to ensure their university was properly supported and sustained. Ideas such as merely ''living within our means'' were an anathema.
Frequently, vice-chancellors would even band together, dare I say in a form of union, in order to ensure governments properly supported higher education. Yet, as is the current situation at ANU, we only see crocodile tears about underfunding. Despite the huge intellectual weight of the recent Bradley Review of higher education and the subsequent base-funding review, both of which demanded immediate higher levels of funding for universities, we hear virtually nothing.
So now at the ANU we're seeing the playing out of an easier, but ultimately far more destructive strategy. Fight with, rather than fight for the university. Using rhetorical fig leaves of new curriculum, teaching innovation or occupational destinations, we see a dark game of brutal resource reductions that dispossess academic and general staff of their careers and their livelihoods.
Meanwhile, the rest of the university begins to live in fear of being targeted on economics, moving to ever more rationalist approaches and beginning to self-administer the pain. Cultures of harsh and intolerant performance management flourish as staff feel they have to constantly justify what they do and how much they do of it. Rumours abound of looming budget problems, progressively draining staff and ultimately students of their enthusiasm for learning. And their hope.
This is no future for Australia's national university.
It is time for the ANU leadership to acknowledge the enormous damage such economic obsessions are inflicting on the university community.
It should start today by withdrawing the ill-conceived proposals for the School of Music. Instead, perhaps it can finally begin to again think expansively: how do we build this university and its excellence rather than how we tear it down to inevitable mediocrity?