Open Day at La Trobe University Bundoora on August 26th was a tumultuous affair, with students staging vocal protests throughout the day. Over 19,000 high school students, their parents, prospective students and other visitors were on campus for the open day, a record turnout for the university. However, the event took a dramatic turn with visitors bearing witness to vocal student dissent. The announcement in June of a massive restructuring of the Humanities and Social Sciences faculty, effective from 2013, prompted the outcry.
Under the new scheme, the number of subjects offered in the faculty will be cut in half from 913 to 400 in 2013. The University has deemed entire subject areas too unpopular to run; consequently the number of humanities majors available will be slashed from 29 to 13. 42 staff members will concurrently be made redundant. These changes come in spite of La Trobe’s strong history in the arts and humanities; in the 2005 Times Higher Education Supplement, La Trobe was ranked in the top 25 universities in the world in this area, and third in Australia. The University has revealed the changes as a means of closing its current $4.3 million gap in revenue, and bringing the faculty back to surplus.
The new model will also see the introduction of the so-called dual major, whereby students will be able to study two disciplines taught in an integrated style, rather than being separated by different sub-faculties. This proposal has worried staff for a number of reasons. La Trobe National Tertiary Education Union president Virginia Mansell Lees has said that it will limit access to important specialty subjects, impacting on post-graduate study options. It is this cross-institutional teaching that will allow for the announced staff cuts.
LaTrobe Vice-Chancellor Professor John Dewar has defended the changes, saying that the new model will “streamline” courses. He argues that “traditional arts degrees are no longer sufficiently enticing nor relevant to school leavers and employers alike, and students have been voting, in effect, for a smaller humanities faculty with their feet”. With student demand in decline and a “very high” number of subjects offered in relation to the number of enrolments, these cuts are financially necessary according to Professor Dewar. They will also provide much needed financial respite for the university.
In the lead up to Open Day, attempts were made to quell prospective protests, including a ban on all non-registered demonstrations. However, student protesters emerged in force on the key promotional day for the University, marching around campus and clearly ignoring the ban. Professor Dewar was targeted, with protesters chanting, “John Dewar, hey, hey, how many jobs have you cut today?” Events took a dramatic and more aggressive turn when Professor Dewar was found by protestors and chased into a building; he was then pushed into a study room by security. Protesters outside barricaded him in the room, demanding answers on how far cuts to education would go.
Despite having to make a quick exit through tunnels under the building, Professor Dewar said he supports student protests as they “add color and movement to life on campus.” However, some students are facing suspension or even expulsion as a result of the protests.
Students and staff alike are banding together to fight the cuts. Alongside multiple protests, including those at open day and a joint staff-student protest at a University Council meeting, a petition has been circulated – it has nearly 2000 signatures to date. The La Trobe Student Union has called the cuts short sighted and ill conceived, saying they “will do irrevocable damage to a faculty that La Trobe University once prided itself on”. Another student group ‘Fight Back’ has countered the argument that there is any faculty deficit, claiming the University’s annual report cited a surplus of $84 million dollars in 2011.
With dissidence escalating, the University has been forced to act. In a backflip, statements have been released saying that the Indonesian, Linguistics, Art History and Gender, Sexuality & Diversity subject areas will continue to run, despite prior suggestions that they would be slashed under the new model. Similarly, staff cuts have been (if marginally) scaled back from a planned 50 to 37 by 2013, with another four to follow by 2015. While these changes should be seen as a victory for protesters, many are demanding the cutbacks be completely abolished.
The funding of educational institutions is an increasingly dominant issue, with recent reforms to Victorian TAFE funding coinciding with the changes at La Trobe. These changes are overwhelmingly driven by financial concerns. It appears that the focus of the University administration at La Trobe, other institutions and indeed the Victorian Government has moved away from emphasis on world-class education and more towards cost cutting and profit margins.
As one angry student asked, in the front line at the La Trobe protests, “How far will these cuts to our education go?” In the current climate, it is hard not to question which university will be next. Are the La Trobe protests only a taste of things to come?
To sign the petition against the staff cuts and restructuring at La Trobe go to http://tinyurl.com/cuts-to-huss.