A Poor Start for a Radical Change

My very first published piece of work! I wrote this op-ed while editing Farrago at the University of Melbourne, in relation to student concerns about the implementation of a new course and fee structure. Appeared in The Age, 18/05/2007

 

As the Melbourne Model was being formally unveiled, some people were celebrating, and some were protesting. But most were simply very, very confused.

While Melbourne University has been pushing a united front in its publicity, with Insight (14/4) quoting Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis as saying the university had overwhelmingly backed the model, support on campus has been far from unanimous. Some students have consistently objected to the model's implementation, while staff have raised concerns about the apparent priority given to some faculties over others. The majority, though, simply don't know what the hell is going on.

Rather than setting out the entire model to be analysed and discussed, the university seems to have been drip-feeding information to the media, and saving the finer details for the launch and advertising roll-out. The university's website, until recently, has been heavy on bureaucratic double-speak, emphasising the "triple helix model" of teaching, research and "knowledge transfer", and dishearteningly light on facts. Students and staff have been relying on rumour and hearsay to discern exactly how the introduction of new-generation courses will affect them, with misunderstanding rife.

This lack of intelligibility is frustrating students, and what's more, it's frustrating debate. While there have been some serious concerns about the implementation of the model, the fact is that by the time students were able to arm themselves with facts, figures and specifics detailed at the launch, the model was already officially in place. To many students, it seems disingenuous that the university would boast of the importance of student involvement and critique in the development of the plan when a sense of inevitability surrounded most of the decisions announced.

And, at a time when transparency and probity have been the buzzwords at a federal level, the university's reluctance to give students all the details smacks to some of an attempt to obfuscate key details. It bears pointing out that few within the university are questioning the model's pedagogical benefits. Most students are concerned about implementation: the fact that subjects are disappearing, that redundancies are rumoured and staff are leaving, that Commonwealth-supported places allocation could change drastically, and that students studying for a profession at postgraduate level will do so without access to Centrelink support or even public transport concession cards. The issues, for most, are to do with equity and not education.

In a recent interview with Farrago, the student union newspaper, Davis admitted there were some problems with the implementation of the model, but shied away from suggestions that it was being rushed through, saying instead that the speed of the model was intended to minimise disruption. He also emphasised that student welfare was a big consideration in the planning and implementation of the model, something creative arts students, in particular, have been doubting recently as they turn up to lectures only to find that entire subjects have been cancelled.

In fact, creative arts is probably the best example of the communication breakdown within the university. Despite allowing a first-year intake for creative arts this year, subject numbers have been cut drastically, to the point where first-year students no longer had any elective subjects available to them. And despite the university's promise to "teach out" creative arts, lecturers and tutors who choose not to stay until they are made redundant but apply for other jobs now are not being replaced when they leave. Rather, the subject they taught is simply cut from the curriculum.

As Davis points out, many of those changes do not stem from the incoming model but from a 2002 faculty review. But the university hasn't chosen to clarify this point, nor make clear that the justification for many arts subjects being restructured is that the department has a now unmanageable deficit. Creative arts is not an isolated case within the university, and as the magnitude of some changes becomes clearer, the university is going to find itself in hot water with students who feel they haven't been adequately consulted.

A recent student forum, one of only two a year, was packed, despite being poorly publicised. Half of it was taken up by a presentation. Only a handful of questions were answered. This is not free and open debate.

The Melbourne Model is possibly the most ambitious educational reorganisation to be undertaken in Australia. Now that we've set ourselves firmly on that path, most of us are hoping we can pull it off. But if it's going to work, everyone at Melbourne — staff, students and administration — will have to work together. Misgivings and misunderstandings of the kind that are developing will only hurt the university, and something needs to be done, soon, to rectify the situation. If we can't champion transparency, disclosure and debate within the university, "knowledge transfer" isn't going to be worth a damn.