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Nov 6, 2009

Melbourne Uni Arts faculty anger at Dean’s re-appointment

Arts faculty staff at The University of Melbourne are in active revolt this morning after the man blamed for implementing widespread sackings and cost-cutting was re-appointed for a five year term as Dean.

Andrew Crook — Former <em>Crikey</em> Senior Journalist

Andrew Crook

Former Crikey Senior Journalist

Arts faculty staff at The University of Melbourne are up in arms this morning after the man blamed for implementing a controversial cost-cutting regime was re-appointed for a five-year term as Dean.

Professor Mark Considine, who was involved in a bitter four-way selection stoush with Professor Joy Damousi, Professor Katharine Darian-Smith and Professor Mitchell Dean for the position, was confirmed in his current role last night amid a battle over the faculty’s funding model, which had led to massive staff and subject cuts.

Professor Considine has been a strong proponent of the controversial Melbourne Model, and has backed parallel plans to downsize the History and Philosophy Departments and axe “unpopular” subjects. His attempts last year to drive home a wide-ranging restructure had led to outrage from senior academics.

“It was fair to say there was a lot of dissent and disaffection over the future of humanities and Mark’s approach”, one academic told Crikey this morning. “The other candidates had certainly presented a strong alternative to what was being put about by Davis and Considine.”

“The place is riven with controversy and there’s almost total demoralisation”, said another, who also did not want to be named.

At a fiery “meet the candidates” presentation in late September, Professors Damousi and Darian-Smith backed a restoration in funding from the central administration. Both candidates were keen to restore a level playing field after the university revised its funding model in 2007 to favour certain departments.

Concern has also been expressed at the use of expensive consultants to revise staffing structures in the languages department.

In an email to staff late yesterday, Vice Chancellor Davis defended the decision to re-appoint Professor Considine, claiming “a clear majority of Faculty of Arts staff who expressed a view in the consultation process, by interview or in writing, supported appointment [sic].”

“The selection process has attracted keen interest and some strongly held views.”

Crikey understands that the eventual decision to pick Professor Considine came amid an internal fight between faculty representatives and external appointees on the selection committee, which took six days to reach a decision following interviews conducted last Friday.

Professor Considine was appointed to an interim two year term in 2007 following the shock departure of Belinda Probert, who left to care for her mother after confronting widespread dissent within the faculty. Professor Probert, like Professor Considine, was regarded as too close to senior management.

He has been the chief architect of the Graduate School of Arts, set to be introduced next year, however sources have told Crikey that the enrolments to date have been disappointing.

Under unpopular new funding guidelines introduced by Davis, the subsidisation of Arts by richer faculties has been subsumed by a focus on balancing budgets. Critics say Professor Considine’s academic research interests in “knowledge transfer” dovetailed with attempts to “commercialise” the Arts Faculty’s operations.

Former Arts deans, including Professor Stuart Macintyre, have publicly criticised Professor Considine for failing to challenge the Vice Chancellor over funding. His re-appointment follows the news that Ms Elizabeth Baré, who had assisted Professor Considine with the Arts restructure, announced she would resign at the end of the year.

The controversy also comes amid mounting evidence the Melbourne Model has failed to attract students. Data released by the Victorian Tertiary Admissions Centre yesterday revealed the institution received 1399 fewer first preferences this year, a decline of 14 per cent. Rival Monash University, which has persisted with its traditional undergraduate model, posted a 12 per cent jump.

Yesterday, the university announced that it will accept 51 additional voluntary redundancies after its human resources department was inundated with applications, as foreshadowed by Crikey. The latest cuts come on top of the loss of 220 positions announced in July.

Professor Considine was in a meeting this morning and could not be contacted.


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11 thoughts on “Melbourne Uni Arts faculty anger at Dean’s re-appointment

  1. Damien Almond

    As a former general staff member of the University (who has no connection to it currently in shape or form) I readily admit that it is a far from perfect place and whilst Andrew’s reports have in the past been somewhat titilating, they are now just getting ridiculous and oversimplifiy what is happening in the Uni to the pointof being quite disingenuous. I would refer Andrew to Margaret Simons – #3 item in today’s Crikey and perhaps he should have a think abut what he is producing. Maybe it is time for a reveal or disclaimer as to the genesis of Andrew’s antagonism towards the University.

  2. Andrew Crook

    “Maybe it is time for a reveal or disclaimer as to the genesis of Andrew’s antagonism towards the University.”

    Is there something you know that I don’t?

    It seems your former role in the University’s Human Resources department has granted you a unique perspective from which to assess this debate.

  3. JohnE

    It seems we should resign ourselves to having the centre of humanities gravity move closer and closer to Canberra. Universities in my locality are concentrating their arts funding in those areas that could be loosely termed ‘current global issues’, playing on the love of global travel and youthful optimism. This seems to me the likely route all metro universities will take, pumping money into the social sciences, internship programs and the like. It’s far too late to resist such changes I think – from reading Richard Larkin’s recent speech, one could be forgiven for believing that Australian universities are simply commercial research centres. One measly line at the end about cultural vibrancy or some such rot is all there is to suggest institutions like Melbourne and Monash might be more than a series of ‘compacts’ and ‘centres of innovation’ subjugated wholly to financial metrics.

  4. MichaelT

    This is a very partisan account of the matter.

    The problem is that two very different sets of issues – the introduction of the Melbourne Model, and the budgetary problems of the Faculty of Arts – have been mixed up together in an indiscriminate fashion.

    The rationale for the Melbourne Model was to position Unimelb as the elite university with professional graduate education building on generalist undergraduate education. There are good educational reasons for this that have nothing to do with money. As a generalist faculty, Arts should be able to thrive in such an environment.

    As a former student with even longer-standing connections to the Faculty I want to see it succeed, but supporters need to be more hard-headed about this. Ending subsidies from other faculties is only ‘unpopular’ from the point of view of the Faculty that has received the subsidies. Continuing to provide the subsidies will be considerably unpopular with the other faculties, who bring in the funds only to see it handed out to someone else. This is no way to win friends within the University.

    The deline in total numbers of applications is a concern, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into a decline in first preference applications, and may have no impact whatseover on student numbers in the university or in the faculty, and hence no impact on its funding.

    What is needed is for the faculty to find ways to bring in more students, and hence more funding, so that they don’t have to rely on subsidies. This is easier said than done, however.

  5. MichaelT

    Further point – universities are funded by the numbers of students who go there, not by the total number of people who apply.

    Declining applications is an unfavourable indicator, however.

  6. Gavin Moodie

    Thanx MICHAELT: at last someone writing some sense on this issue.

    I add that subjects with falling enrolments – be they theology, Latin, physics or philosophy – can’t reasonably insist on being funded at historically higher levels long after their enrolments have fallen with some special pleading about being central to civilisation. These subjects have either to find a way of attracting more students or cut their staffing to be commensurate with the number of students they are able to attract.

  7. vovo

    “I add that subjects with falling enrolments – be they theology, Latin, physics or philosophy – can’t reasonably insist on being funded at historically higher levels long after their enrolments have fallen with some special pleading about being central to civilisation. ”

    Fine, drop Latin and theology, absorb philosophy into the maths and remedial English departments, but for God’s sake, don’t touch physics, which IS very much central to civilisation and makes real contributions to our lives. If it were a choice between Oppenheimer and Claude Lévi-Strauss, it would have to be the structuralist to get the chop, not the bomb maker.

  8. rodbeecham

    The Melbourne Model has indeed been sold “to position Unimelb as the elite university with professional graduate education building on generalist undergraduate education”, but, as I have noted elsewhere, this was an ingenious attempt by Glyn Davis to break out of the funding trap his university, like all Australian universities, has been in since 1989. There are few other institutions in this country which could have attempted such a solution: it had a fighting chance at Melbourne because of that university’s prestige (the reasons for which have always been a mystery to me, but that’s another issue). For this reason, the funding problems confronting the Faculty of Arts and the Melbourne Model are linked willy-nilly.

    The demand-driven model for university enrolments will see – has seen – both Arts and Pure Science faculties reduced to fugitive rumps in our universities. The Faculty of Economics and Commerce at the University of Melbourne, on the other hand, is booming, because it not only attracts a lot of students but a huge number of the high fee-paying overseas students. This is not due to outstanding teaching or research, however: it is because the Accounting major qualifies graduates for accreditation from a professional body such as the CPA which, in turn, entitles the holder to permanent residency in this country. The Faculty of Economics and Commerce is angry about the Melbourne Model because the “breadth” requirement means that, instead of filling up their degrees with non-Accounting subjects from within the Faculty (i.e. Economics, Finance or Management subjects), students have to take subjects from other faculties. This is where the issue of “propping up under-performing faculties” comes in.

    The Faculty of Arts would be in a much healthier position if it hadn’t seen a ten-fold increase in the proportion of administrative to academic staff since 1989. That’s a (mis-)management issue can probably be sheeted home to the puerility with which Australian institutions usually respond to the spectre of market forces (cf. the response of Australian banks to competition in the 1980s). If we’re now operating like a real business, executive salaries must, of course, double, and huge numbers of highly paid paper-pushers must be recruited and given premium office-space. The people who actually do the work of the business, however, must be bullied and punished.

  9. Gavin Moodie

    Thanx RODBEECHAM; I have long argued that the University of Melbourne moved its highly desirable programs providing entry to the elite occupations to postgraduate (or more correctly, graduate entry) so it could charge full fees for these programs. That seemed to me a clear reading of Growing esteem: choices for the University of Melbourne, the discussion paper that proposed the Melbourne model. However, the former provost Peter McPhee always insisted that the university introduced graduate entry to implement the Bologna agreement.

    The university’s difficulty is that its graduate entry programs are modelled not on Bologna but on elite US universities which fill their mostly much smaller intakes by recruiting nationally from a country of 200 million, while the University of Melbourne recruits not even nationally from a country of 20 million, but from a city of 4 million.

    This experiment needs a decade to run to see whether it will succeed. I expect the University of Melbourne will retain its graduate entry programs long term but sufficiently modified to assure parents that their expenditure of 6 years of fees at elite private schools isn’t ‘wasted’ on getting their children entry to a general undergraduate program with only a chance of admission to a desirable professional program.

  10. MichaelT

    I agree with you, Gavin, that the sucess of the model will only be evident in the medium term. One of the key issues will be the extent to which the market can appreciate the value of the generic as opposed to the vocational program. Since the trend has been more and more towards vocational programs I’m not sure that it will, more’s the pity.

    At the end of the day, you can try and lead demand, but I don’t think you can just ignore it. And if the market doesn’t follow your lead, you have to adjust where you put your resources accordingly. But try leading first!