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Students and Staff Lose Faculty Control

For the last decade, Universities have resembled profit-maximising machines, focused on turning over large surpluses without proper consideration as to whether this comes at the expense of its students. Monash University, for example, made a surplus of $82m in 2011, and $96.6m in 2012. Students are likely to be aware of the current education cuts occurring at education institutions within Victoria in the form of significant course cuts at both La Trobe and Melbourne Universities, not to mention the state government’s gutting of TAFE funding. However, many students at Monash are oblivious to many changes specifically affecting Monash. In January this year, the University Council effectively cut ties with the Gippsland campus, paving the way for a merger with the University of Ballarat, yet cleverly managed to arrive at this conclusion without meaningful consultation with the university’s largest stakeholder – students. This is an appalling practice for an education institution, but it sadly is expected to be merely the start of a number of major cuts.

While most students can collectively agree that University bureaucracy – affectionately labelled ‘admonashstration’ by student representatives – is far from ideal, with layers of red tape and procedural hurdles galore, the only area which Monash attempted to reform its style of administration has come once again at the expense of students. In late 2012, Monash took significant steps to remove power from elected representatives and started to disestablish layers of accountability in core decision-making bodies. A number of academic committees were removed and many checks and balances that existed in the formulation of university policy were taken away. These changes ended with a crescendo in December of last year, with the legislation that removed the guaranteed positions for elected student and staff representatives on University Council – the highest governing body of the University. The plethora of changes made over the course of the last twelve months raises the chilling question: is there much hope for the student movement?

Chancellor Alan Finkel, consumed by the hunger of financial efficacy and single bottom line figures, yet completely indifferent to student concerns, has likened HECS to communism, and the University Council to the board of directors of a retail outlet. While Monash proudly alleges that their values are predicated on the notion that students come first, they rarely consider the actual implications of their actions on the student body, or consult effectively with students. This demonstrates their actual desire – not to see students thrive, but rather to see them complacent with their own disenfranchisement.
At the last University Council, Vice-Chancellor Ed Byrne, who likes to appear in favour of student services and a high quality of teaching, made clear the senior administration’s intention to remove all decision-making power of Faculty Boards at Monash – diminishing them to merely advisory bodies. The power to recommend establishing or cutting units and courses, as well as making modifications to policies surrounding assessment and course curriculum, responsibilities that currently sit with faculty boards, would rest solely with Faculty Deans – who would have executive delegation from the Vice Chancellor to unilaterally make recommendations on behalf of the faculty. Cleverly concealed as a move, again, to remove layers of bureaucracy and increase efficiencies within the administration, the University’s proposal would significantly limit the ability of both students and staff to contribute to key decisions, allowing the University free to make controversial and detrimental changes, without the endorsement of a large number of their stakeholders. Ironically, Byrne even highlighted the ability to cut units and increase the profit margins of the University with greater ease as a benefit of the proposed changes. While the University’s rhetoric might differ, it is clear from proposals such as these that the value the University places upon academics and students has slipped from being the top priority, to that of an obstacle standing in the way of the mighty Monash degree machine.

To those who say that Deans are in the best position to make such decisions – wrong. They may be best placed, but they are certainly not best informed. Do Deans know what it is like to live like a student in today’s age? Do they know of the ambitions of students? Do they know that a unit with only 6 people attending may be crucial to a student’s future? No. Not without the input and advice of students, and the wider academic community. This is where the dissonance steps in – should the University really be influenced by students’ voices?

On numerous occasions Byrne has expressed his dislike for students on senior management committees – commenting that it is inappropriate for students to be involved in high-level decision making. In his report, Byrne stated that University administration was responsible for managing the University, and so, they should have the ultimate power to decide what is taught. These decisions will be made with little or no thought about the ramifications of students, staff, and the wider community – but hey, at least they’ll be made with maximum efficiency!

With the disturbing combination of this ‘money first, students needs later’ mind-set and the reformed bureaucratic structure to support it, we can expect to see large cuts to courses and units over the next few months. This is where the price of such ‘efficiency’ will become clear: reduced student opportunities and a blow to the quality of education.

After Tertiary Education Minister Craig Emerson’s recent announcement, to cut government funding from Universities, the government is leaving a hefty $900 million gap for Universities to plug, by implementing an efficiency dividend in the coming two years. This leaves universities such as Monash, who will need to find an extra $48 million to counteract government cuts with the burden of finding cuts in areas they desire – whether it results in larger class sizes, or unit cuts. These government cuts add to the mounting list of danger to the quality of our education.

Ben Knight

The author Ben Knight

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