Blogs > Cliopatria > A dispatch from Harvard by the Yarra

Aug 4, 2009 6:39 am

A dispatch from Harvard by the Yarra

[Cross-posted at Airminded.]

'Harvard by the Yarra' is actually the University of Melbourne, Australia (the Yarra being the major river hereabouts, though the university is not actually anywhere near it). Some wag coined the phrase to describe (and deride) the aspirations implicit in the Melbourne Model, a radical overhaul of undergraduate teaching announced in 2007. Instead of many specialised undergraduate courses, there are now (or soon will be) only six, which will be more general and will serve as feeders for professional postgraduate courses. So whereas students used to be able to enroll in a law or medicine degree straight out of high school, for example, they now must complete an undergraduate degree first. This is more like the US tertiary education system than the British one, which provided the model for the first Australian universities in the 19th century. Hence 'Harvard by the Yarra'.

But there's another similarity to Harvard. Melbourne, like most Australian universities is publicly-funded. However, like Harvard, it is a (relatively, in Australian terms) old and prestigious institution, and so it has also attracted a (again, in Australian terms) large endowment from various benefactors. You might think that this is a good thing to have in a global recession, but apparently not. A slump in the value of the university's investments combined with several other factors (for example, the loss of fees from local students) has lead to a budgetary crisis, and an announcement by the vice-chancellor of a plan to cut 220 full-time equivalent jobs over the next few years, about 3% of the total workforce, to fall on both academics and administrative staff.

This doesn't come at a good time for the Faculty of Arts, which has already been struggling to deal with its own deep budget deficits over the last couple of years. This is partly due to curriculum changes imposed by the Melbourne Model, but also to a shift in the way funds are allocated by the university. There has been much publicity about this in recent months, as Arts tried to reduce salary expenditure by encouraging academic staff to take early retirement or go on long-term leave without pay. It's lost about 65 academics through these measures. The School of Historical Studies, where I completed my PhD studies, has been the focus of much of this attention. What was perhaps the leading history department in Australia is being slowly strangled by the need to do more with less. And with the recent spate of bad news, a recovery in the near future seems unlikely.

Take sessional tutoring, which has long been a chance for PhD and MA students to get some experience in classroom teaching, and to earn some some welcome cash while doing so. It has been proposed that tutors (teaching assistants to North Americans) should no longer be paid to attend lectures in their subject -- but still would be expected to attend them, if it wasn't a subject they had taken as an undergraduate. And lecturers are being asked to justify the hiring of tutors, or in other words are being pressured to do more and more of the tutoring themselves. The result will be that they teach less or research less, both of which are key performance indicators.

Or take historical breadth. When I started out studying history at Melbourne, a decade ago now, it was possible to take subjects on British history which between them covered the 17th through 20th centuries, with further, more specialised subjects at Honours level. None of these subjects are offered any longer; the academics who taught them have retired and have not been replaced. Maybe that's what you'd expect a British historian to say (though I would argue that British history should have some slight relevance for a former British colony). But it's happened in other areas too. Early modern Europe used to be a strength of the department; now there is only one specialist in that field. By my count, there is now only one specialist in Aboriginal history, a very sorry state of affairs indeed. I could go on.

There's a degree to which this sort of change is normal and healthy. But anecdotal evidence (i.e. conversations and rumours) suggests that morale is getting pretty low. And further evidence of this comes from the way in which internal divisions are being exposed in public. For example, a defence of the measures taken by Arts by its current Dean, Mark Considine (a political scientist), was published in The Age last week. It was soon followed by a rebuttal from his predecessor, Stuart Macintyre (an historian). An external report into the School of Historical Studies commissioned by Arts has just recommended cutting its salary budget by a third, on top of all the jobs already lost. The School's head, Joy Damousi, rejected this in an email to staff which has now been leaked to the press. It's not a good look.

I don't have any good ideas about how to fix all this, though I think the root cause is clearly the relentless prioritisation of commercial priorities over academic ones. When cost is the only criterion, quality is going to suffer. History at Melbourne has been suffering for some time; it seems the rest of the university (and the Australian higher education system) is about to have its turn.

Disclaimer: I'm still -- just -- a student at the University of Melbourne, and am employed by it in a professional capacity. This post reflects my opinions alone.

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