La Trobe University is set to slash funding by $65 million as part of a “root and branch” restructure of the entire university. The cuts, announced in late February by Vice Chancellor John Dewar, will have a devastating impact. 350 full-time staff are set to lose their jobs. Thousands of subjects across all faculties will be cut as the university merges its five faculties into just two. Students services, including 24 hour access to the library, will also be revoked.
Vice Chancellor Dewar told The Age that the cuts are “really about building a stronger La Trobe for the future”. However, as this will be La Trobe’s second restructure since 2009, these cuts will only further undermine the quality of education provided at the university.
The cuts are the centrepiece of the ‘Future Ready’ strategy that university management hopes to implement by 2017. The central focus of the plan is to reposition the university’s teaching focus and curriculum on so-called “employability” and “skills”. By limiting the number of courses, university management is trying to exploit student fears that they will not be able to compete in the job market once they complete their studies. Rather than being able to choose what to study, the university is trying to force people into courses that purely benefit corporate interests.
Under increasing pressure from big business, faculties are being told by university management what to research. In January for instance, Dewar signed a controversial $15 million deal with vitamin company Swisse to investigate its own products. Dr Ken Harvey, a leading figure in La Trobe’s school of public health, resigned in protest.
The decline of government funding for higher education over the past 20 years has created a situation where universities have been transformed into corporate minded institutions that operate on a user-pays model. Since the 1980s both the major parties have facilitated the move towards user-pays education. This has helped commodify the university sector therefore opening it up profiteers.
During the 2013 federal election campaign both the ALP and Liberals supported the $2.8 billion of cuts to university funding first introduced by then Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard. $30.6 million of that figure will be cut directly from La Trobe!
In recent years students and staff at La Trobe have fought against this shift towards corporatisation. In June 2012 Dewar announced deep cuts to the university’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, axing 41 full-time staff and hundreds of subjects.
An anti-cuts campaign led by students – that included mass meetings, rallies and occupations – was only able to force Dewar to make minor concessions. Had the La Trobe Student Union and the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) participated more fully, and organised joint staff and student strikes, Dewar’s cuts could have been defeated.
In response to the latest round of cuts the NTEU has called for a 48 hour strike planned for late March. The student union should organise simultaneous action while the NTEU should warn its members that even more industrial action may be required.
Both the staff and the student union should reject the idea that any cuts are necessary. The university recorded a surplus of $84 million in 2012. If management require more money they should be demanding that the $2.8 billion of government funding cuts are reversed. Ordinary students and staff should not be forced to pay.
It is crucial that staff and students at La Trobe push back these cuts. If we are successful it would send a strong message to other university administrations that have similar plans. At the same time it would help lay the basis for a wider campaign against the cuts to public education that the Abbott government has already signalled.
By Conor Flynn