A staff and union campaign did not manage to stop departments at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) at the University of Sydney (USyd) being replaced by a new, centralised discipline structure. But it could have been worse.
The change from a departmental to a discipline structure will give managers more control, and erode the ability of staff to make decisions. Honi Soit said up to 250 subjects will be cut, as will undergraduate courses with fewer than 24 enrolments.
The restructure was made public during the summer break. Academics and National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) members had campaigned hard against it with staff repeatedly telling management, in formal meetings and in writing, that the move would hurt both staff and students.
Staff say it will undercut advances in teaching and learning and would also be deeply unsettling to staff and students. Staff reported that they were repeatedly dismissed by management, which also failed to provide a meaningful financial or educational rationales for the change.
As part of the campaign, staff created a video with faculty members giving testimonials and appealing to university management to “listen”. Staff noted that some of the departments slated to be abolished are “the oldest in Australia”. The video also made it clear that departments are “autonomous, intellectual and educational communities” and the change to a “discipline” structure will undercut academic self-governance.
FASS staff organised a protest petition, which was signed by more than 1000 academics from international institutions. It said that “restructuring staff into ill-defined ‘disciplines’ has neither clarity nor a consistent rationale” and that “the proposed changes constitute yet another chapter in the relentless global assault on the humanities and social sciences”.
NTEU University of Sydney Branch President Nick Reimer said in Overland that “a massive neoliberal fist is now poised to swing into Arts at Sydney”.
Traditionally, Australia’s universities were structured into faculties and departments based on subject areas. The term “discipline” refers to a field of study or a branch of knowledge. However, since the 1990s, managers preferred to use “discipline”, or disciplinary stucture, as a euphemism for a centralised administration, making it easier for them to introduce austerity measures.
Since the 1990s, a neoliberal approach has led to the marketisation of universities, in part, to compensate for less government funding. But rather than campaign for more financial support, university managers kowtow to the federal government. Staff, particularly casual staff who are routinely exploited and students then have to pay the price.
Because a disciplinary structure is considered to be more financially viable, it is deemed a necessary restructure by managers who want their institutions to be more commercially competitive.
For example, FASS has six schools which are, in turn, divided into departments, each with their own budget. University of Sydney management claims that only two of the six schools made a surplus in 2019 and, as such, FASS is financially “unsustainable”.
Management also said that “FASS is the only faculty in the University still with departments, following changes across recent years”.
But, as Reimer pointed out, making the change to a disciplinary structure does not save much money and, he said, the university is “in a better financial position now than predicted even in its pre-Covid forecast”.
Neo-liberal ideology is at its zenith at universities: it is no longer enough for finances to remain stable, they are expected to make and maintain strong surpluses.
Science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects and those that have a so-called “clear vocational pathway” are favoured while non-vocational subjects, like those offered by FASS, are considered financial liabilities. This idea is fostered by the federal government that, on February 1, announced $1.6 billion for universities to provide “funding opportunities to researchers and innovators pursuing commercial viability and industry partnerships”. Another $296 million will be offered to fund “industry-focused PhDs and fellowships”.
Abolishing departments at FASS is just another step in the government's drive against humanities and the arts.
The consistent organising from the NTEU, as well as by staff and students, meant that the FASS re-structure was not worse. The university was forced to back down from some staff cuts and some, although not all, cuts to subjects that were slated to go.
[Georgie Dixon is a pseudonym. They are an NTEU member and a member of the USyd Casuals Network.]