When the setting sun hits Winthrop Hall at a certain angle, a gaggle of men and women costumed in medieval garb and carrying historically accurate weaponry gather on Oak Lawn for a bi-weekly evening of dancing and jousting. Some of us may have passed a snide comment or two about them, meanwhile wishing we were free of the social preservation instincts preventing us from taking part. Since beginning my studies here, I’ve spent many late Wednesday afternoons lounging on the lawn post-Tavern, tipsily watching the action with a group of friends. It’s the kind of strange and charming experience that makes this campus unique, one of many that I will miss when I graduate at the end of the semester. It’s one that future generations of students might not get to enjoy.
I’m not sure how many members of UWA’s International Society for Creative Anachronism major in Medieval and Early Modern Studies. For all I know, most of them are commerce students [eds: we ended up asking them, and the majority study science and engineering]. Yet I can hesitate a guess that at least some of this large and dedicated group of campus jousting enthusiasts are taking units relating in some way to their hobby. I’m just as certain, following the Academic Council’s recent decision to axe the Medieval Studies major, that future members won’t have access to these classes. Although Arts Dean Krishna Sen has encouraged concerned students to believe that the discipline will be integrated into other more popular Arts majors, it is a fact that its core units will be phased out within the next four years. As of August 5, while you can study commerce pretty much anywhere, there is no university in Western Australia that offers Medieval and Early Modern Studies as a major.
UWA has spent a lot of money this year trying to assimilate. Their re-branding campaign, focused around a confusingly large-scale television advertisement that could just as easily be selling Nike sneakers, is recognizable to any critically thinking Arts student as a thinly veiled attempt to become more like Curtin and ECU. So too is the bright, simplified new logo, and the dumbed down two word slogan that constantly verges on self-parody. I feel sure that I first heard this aphorism on an advertisement that actually was selling Nike sneakers, but shouldn’t this university just try to be itself, seeing as everybody else is already taken?
Even putting aside the marketing missteps, when you take away the quirk, the ‘useless’ Oxbridge style Arts units like Medieval Studies (as well as European Studies and Gender Studies, the other two Arts majors facing the axe), and the emphasis on specialized undergraduate study, UWA really does become a Western Australian tertiary education factory like any other. At least in terms of our undergraduate degrees, there is nothing to distinguish us from business-centric Curtin now. And no matter how many giant balloons the university is willing to invest in for its Open Day, I’m not sure that future students will be fooled; hot air is sometimes just that.
While Curtin, Murdoch and ECU offer practical courses for the kinds of students who aren’t too concerned with Group of Eight pomp, UWA is supposed to attract those who are more interested in the tradition of bookworm academia. Like it or not, academic prestige has always been its calling card. Take away this sense of allure, and it seems unlikely that the state’s brightest prospective students will continue to sign up for undergraduate study here, especially when it is easier to find specialized Arts units at other universities that require lower ATAR scores. You can’t sell a university degree on MBA success stories, fancy buildings and hot air balloons alone. And if you can, you’re selling to the wrong kinds of people.
When Krishna Sen put forward her proposal to rescind the three Arts majors at Academic Council earlier this month, she cited small class sizes. Small class sizes equal poor profit margins – ever the economist, Vice Chancellor Paul Johnson was quick to side with her. The motion to axe the majors passed without extensive debate, or even a formal vote. Such is the implicit power of money at UWA, a university that owns millions of dollars worth of unused property, and found the funds this year to invest in, variously: an idiotic and unpopular new mascot, television and radio advertisements produced overseas, the now-infamous Open Day hot air balloon, extensive upkeep for its beautiful (but probably not very water smart) grounds, and a series of campus art installations featuring choice excerpts from BrainyQuote.com’s Top Ten Most Inspirational Clichés. Meanwhile, presumably to help fund these crucial programmes, over the past couple of years UWA has quietly fired most of Reid library’s expert librarians and replaced them with cheaper student casuals.
Anyone passionate about education will tell you that it’s difficult to justify course cuts based on small class sizes. It only takes one talented student to become a Rhodes Scholar, or a world expert on a niche subject area. While sitting in my industrial sized tutorial this week, trying to compete with 28 other students for participation marks by talking slightly louder than everyone else, I wished fervently for a more intimate learning environment. Small class sizes are the dream, not the nightmare. I’d love not to descend into a fever of anxiety every time I’m forced to try and stand out from a cohort of showy young men in a room where my voice is by default the softest. I’d love to share a classroom with a small group of people passionately devoted to a subject, and I doubt I’m alone.
UWA Vice Chancellor Paul Johnson is an economist, and a celebrated one at that. But he should be aware by now that, despite his credentials, he works at this university in a very different capacity. Not as a bean counter, but as a safeguard of academic rigour. Someone who might enjoy a light afternoon of jousting, be it intellectual or otherwise.
But what would I know? I’m the most generic of hopeless cases – a public service bound, Centrelink sponsored English major with an interest in mid twentieth century North American poetry. I suppose I’m probably the New UWA’s worst nightmare, but I’ve enjoyed my chosen subject area and hope to pursue it further at another institution next year. Somewhere far away from Crawley, a suburb that has given me some of my happiest memories, but now leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.
Words by Kat Gillespie