By Charles Fedor
It is truly an abysmal day when you have to remind a university that they are a university, not a business. Though the proposed abolishment of the Anthropology and Sociology degree is shocking in its brazenness, it is part of a long war against the arts that UWA has partaken in, continued under Vice-Chancellor Amit Chakma. Pelican is planning to provide ongoing coverage of this topic and I have the privilege (or perhaps risk) of delivering the opening salvo. Well, in for a penny, in for a pound I suppose – let’s hope this article doesn’t miss the mark. I will do a few things; firstly, profile our Vice-Chancellor’s record including some of his controversial decisions as President of the University of Western Ontario and then chronicle what I perceive to be the significant value dissonance the Vice-Chancellor has demonstrated in his rationale for the cuts.
It should be noted that the proposal is constructed and approved by multiple bodies and is not solely the work of the Vice-Chancellor, and comes as just one part of the long-running attack of the arts and humanities driven by various university administrators. However, as a driving figure of UWA’s strategy, it is important to critique Dr. Chakma and keep in mind his record in university leadership.
Dr. Amit Chakma: Financial Scorched Earth
Dr. Amit Chakma was voted in as our university’s nineteenth Vice-Chancellor by the University Senate to replace interim Vice-Chancellor Professor Jane den Hollander. Upon his appointment, he was praised by The Australian newspaper as someone delivering “a message of hope”. He pledged that, “when students come here, they are really going to be taken care of”. Well, those words seem to be more of a threat than a promise given what the Vice-Chancellor seems to be proposing. Dr. Chakma’s lofty rhetoric on a student-centric experience is belied by his reputation as President of the University of Western Ontario. In an interview with Business News, Dr. Chakma said “one of his biggest challenges at Western was getting phone calls from disgruntled parents, unhappy their child could not get in”.
Dr. Chakma also faced a motion of no-confidence over his conduct by the University Senate in 2014. In the middle of recession-era cuts to higher education or, in Dr. Chakma’s words, “a thousand little cuts”, Dr. Chakma was paid double his university salary. This occurred when Dr. Chakma utilised a “double dipping” rule in which he chose to work and thus collect a second full salary instead of taking paid administrative leave. This action contributed to the provincial parliament prohibiting actions like this in the year after the controversy. Dr. Chakma faced concerted opposition from students and staff including Dr. Michael Strong, the Dean of the University’s School of Medicine and Dentistry. Dr. Chakma came out relatively unscathed after having to issue an apology and return his $440,000 salary. However, he then inked a deal that would allow the same deal to occur again after another five years.
Later, a judicial review was conducted by a retired justice of the Ontario Appeals Court. Alongside this, the budget cuts at Western were allegedly causing the “slow starvation” of the social sciences and humanities departments of the university, and it was reported that graduate students had to “run a food bank on campus for their impoverished colleagues”. Further, tuition costs and class sizes markedly increased. When the dust settled, Chakma had cut $856,478 from the humanities, $328,997 from music and then an eye-watering $2.47 million from the medical school*.
As the UWA cuts move forward, it may also be of no surprise to you that Dr. Chakma has not communicated if he himself will receive a pay cut. His position as a Vice-Chancellor of a Group of Eight university suggests he could be earning over a million dollars per annum.
Now we get to the UWA proposal which will be covered in more depth on a financial level in another article (we only have so many words!)
Let’s first of all be very clear: the primary rationale behind this draconian restructure is a “structural deficit” of $40 million per annum. However, UWA has been remarkably coy over what this means exactly. Structural deficits typically exist regardless of economic circumstances or enrolments. This structural deficit and cost cutting measures have been occurring for about the last ten years beginning with VC Paul Johnson.
Setting this aside, the report noted that “social sciences and humanities graduates from The University of Western Australia have the lowest rate of full-time employment 4 months after graduation” and that the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT) surveys indicated UWA students had lower levels of satisfaction than other Western Australian universities. As a student at UWA, this seems to be natural for a school that is constantly being assailed by budgets cuts on a federal and organisational level; the less money you provide a discipline, the lower the quality of the product you receive. However, instead of redirecting funds to the social sciences, UWA is instead targeting the school for truly severe downsizing. For a research school, UWA has targeted seven level ‘E’ academics that are the heart and soul of academic research and publishing at the university. This short-term slash and burn is compounded by removing Masters options for Asian Studies, Heritage Studies, and Social Research Methods, effectively guaranteeing that for the foreseeable future UWA will struggle to engage in research in these areas.
Seemingly tightening belts, the VC aims to have UWA increase its class sizes to thirty-five students per teacher, which is thirty percent higher than at the University of Melbourne (their supposed benchmark). The rationale UWA provided is that these areas have historically received low enrolments and that they have tried to fix it. The solution is not to strike the major out, but instead build interest in high schools (a strategy that has been noticeably absent from the university’s potential solutions). Universities are not supposed to act like businesses, they are educational institutions first and foremost. They provide public goods that all of society can and should benefit from. Research projects currently run by Anthropology and Sociology include National Schooling Reform, transnational mobility among young people, and how to provide support for an aging population. All of these are now under jeopardy barring legally enforceable agreements such as joint contracts with other universities. You may not be an anthropology and sociology student, but remember this is likely to be the opening shot of a comprehensive cutting of budgets across multiple schools.
It is up to us to remind the university they are not a corporation, they are our university. Let’s hold our Vice-Chancellor to the ideals of the university educator, and stop him from shutting our eyes to the world around us. Don’t wait until your school is facing these cuts to resist, because eventually there will be no one left to speak in your defence…
A demonstration against the proposal is planned for 2 p.m. this Friday 16 July. Details can be found here.
*All values are in Canadian dollars.