La Trobe arts cuts are not 'fine tuning'
Address to joint student-staff meeting against proposed cuts to La Trobe University's Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences (HUSS) by Dr Jack Reynolds, NTEU La Trobe Branch Secretary.
We have heard some competing things about this restructure from the Executive Dean. We have heard that it is the biggest change to the university since its inception, as stated in his presentation to staff when first announcing the organisational change. We have also heard that it is just “fine-tuning”, as stated in The Age. Well, we know that if we take our car to a mechanic and they replace 25% of the component parts, and omit 60% of the core features, this is not fine-tuning. It sounds rather more like a complete overhaul, or, worse, that the car will be sent to the scrap-heap. Certainly we are not in the midst of fine-tuning here.
I believe that the university has taken a grave risk with the future of this Faculty, and hence the university as a whole. In my view, and that of the NTEU, 45FTE job losses is far too many, far too quickly. Likewise, the subject and course reductions are too many, too quickly. Neither will be the salvation of the Faculty in a financial sense or otherwise. Cutting jobs, subjects, and whole areas in this manner, and to this magnitude, is very likely to cut revenue as students look elsewhere, thus leading, as the LSTU likes to say, to a race to the bottom. I hope that is not so. When I came here at the end of 2006, I read Robert Manne and Peter Beilharz’s Reflected Light. The very first page cites a Times Higher Education ranking in which we were in the top 25 Faculties of Arts in the world. Although we have some serious financial difficulties in the Faculty, I do not believe that the best way to recapture such status, and to provide our students with the best learning experience we can, is to cut and burn.
Moreover, the finances are not as simple as we are led to believe. As everyone knows, we are not currently in deficit. We are short on the expected surplus. If we take Council goals of 3-5% surplus, we are around $2.2 million down on student load. The rest of the $4.3 million we are said to be down is in regard to “productivity gains” expected from the Faculty, whatever that means. Also, when we are given the sums and projections, it is rarely mentioned that 45 redundancy payouts will cost the university in excess of $8million. We might ask whether that is judicious use of money, given that the Faculty plans to grow student numbers by 2017. There is a case that less redundancies would actually be more financially viable and cause less disruption to staff and students. I have made this case to the Vice-Chancellor in writing to no avail. Thus far there is no sign the university is prepared to compromise.
Moreover, the university has made decisions that have helped to put HUSS, and the broader university, in this predicament. Anyone recall the multi-million dollar write off that was the WMS (Workload Management System)? What about the procedure for distributing the Sustainable Research Excellence funds that come from the government? This is a rather technical matter, but the university gets these funds on the basis of research performance, but how it distributes them within the university is essentially up to the university. So, why then, did the university management insist on a ratio of 1,2,5 ratio for dividing up the pie that basically meant that all SRE money goes to the 2 parts of the university that were ranked 5. HUSS, with 7 areas ranked 4 (above world standard), gets very little.
What about the amount that the centre derives from every dollar contribution per enrolled student? At La Trobe, the centre receives 54 cents out of 1 dollar for every CSP place. What do other comparable faculties, such as the Faculty of Arts at University of Tasmania, pay? 51 cents out of 1 dollar goes to the centre. Is that why we have very large staff-student ratios in many areas in HUSS, which will increase drastically next year (more than 50 to 1 in some areas), and yet continue to have a financial problem? It seems to be part of the story.
Finally, there is one Faculty in the university that was expressly allowed to make a loss. All others, including HUSS, are not. On what basis were such decisions made? Presumably on the basis of research and reputation. So it is acknowledged that cash isn’t everything for one Faculty, but not for others. And this is a trend that the humanities and social sciences are falling victim to around much of the world. In La Trobe’s case, however, it seems to have been forgotten that HUSS has always been one of the best performing research parts of the whole university, making the decision to seek 45FTE redundancies seem very risky for the future of the university and its aspirations to be in the top 12 in Australia against various indicators.
We need to be financially healthy, but taking this as the measure of all things at the university is a sure way to not be a healthy university, whether in a financial sense, or, more importantly, in a broader cultural sense that includes the very idea of the university as an institution designed to encourage criticality and life-long learning. We have heard that universities are businesses. This is enforced from Canberra down. It is perhaps partly true, but it is not the whole story and we have to try to reclaim a different understanding of the university, one that can also provide a place for criticism of the society that we are a part of, rather than merely duplicate its worst aspects.
In ‘The University Without Condition’, Derrida argues that the university ought to be the privileged site from which to contest or resist orthodoxies. He also suggests that it is the Humanities and Social Sciences, in particular, that should be the ultimate place of critical resistance: a ‘place of… a sort of principal of civil disobedience, even of dissidence in the name of a justice of thought’. It is difficult to do this, of course, and it does not mean that anything goes or that one should not be careful about their dissidence and resistance. We should.
Perhaps picketing open day is not the most prudential thing to do. But the point is that staff who have been in the university long-term can get used to managerial rule, and get used to economic justifications for cuts that have the appearance of necessity. It is difficult and unusual to go back to first principles, to ask troubling questions. And there are lots of such questions. A couple come to mind. At a recent forum, a colleague of mine from the Faculty and the NTEU asked the Vice Chancellor why staff of the Faculty cannot elect heads of department, heads of schools, and even Deans? He seemed rather flabbergasted by this. He certainly did not have an answer. Another question we should ask: why must university councils across Australia be steadily lessening in size, and having far less staff and student representation?
I am not saying that the answer to such questions is easy and obvious. But there is a frankness about these kind of questions that those in power can find confronting and that can disturb the status quo. That is why we need to persist in asking the naïve questions, the questions that bracket, at least for a moment, the obvious answer. We need to think long and hard about the university that we want to be part of. Any given university may fall short of this, but it is this critical distance that can help us to ask the hard questions about the kind of institutions that universities are becoming, that La Trobe is becoming, as well as the kind of society that we are part of.
As such, we need to continue to ask the hard questions, questions that may seem naïve or have an obvious answer. Usually they are neither. It is true that argument has had little effect thus far. But this kind of reflection - reflection on the very idea of the university and its place in society writ large - will be the basis from which any coherent action emerges.