The University of Melbourne, like most other universities, has been hit hard by the global financial crisis. The university has lost a fair amount of money on its investment portfolio. This has led management to announce the further culling of 220 jobs among both the professional and academic workforce. The move has sparked uproar and numerous press reports lamenting the near terminal state of Australia's universities, especially the arts and humanities component thereof.
The Vice Chancellor, Glyn Davis, has stated "I'm sure I wasn't the only member of my senior executive team awake at 3am last night, staring into the dark wondering how the world ended up like this".
The most thoughtful analysis has come from the philosopher Peter Singer. He points out that previous cuts have hit the arts and humanities particularly hard. The additional cuts threaten the very future of a liberal education. However, Singer misses the big picture as do most of the press reports. Most of the reports have singled out the "Melbourne Model" reforms that have become largely associated with Glyn Davis.
To be sure Singer himself does not do this. In his important analytic piece in The Age Singer makes the point that he largely supports the Melbourne Model reforms for they provide a broad education that expands the horizons of students not just personally but also intellectually and civically. Singer argues that for the model to work it must be adequately funded which, he further maintains, currently it is not.
Others argue that the move away from academic specialisation, especially in relatively non utilitarian subjects such as the arts and humanities, has in fact driven the job cuts. The university, for its part, considers that the financial crisis gives it no other choice.
The argument due to the Melbourne Model rests on the supposition that a restructured university curricula naturally leads to the desire to develop a restructured academic workforce more in tune with interdisciplinarity. Without redundancies, sackings and coerced "voluntary" retirements this could not be possible, hence the drama at the University of Melbourne.
I am not in a position to judge whether the employment restructuring at the University of Melbourne, which predates the latest job cuts, is Melbourne Model driven. There at least is a viable hypothesis here worthy of further inquiry.
However, one thing is clear.
The University of Melbourne is not the only university that has gone through these processes. Such events have occurred, and are occurring, across the university sector in Australia. For instance under the reign of David Robinson at Monash University, Melbourne's leading university, similar upheaval was unleashed by a managerial strategy largely designed to turn the university into a corporation. The restructure also hit the Faculty of Arts very hard.
If I might recall events proved to be quite dramatic. The bust of the almighty General Sir John Monash was made to go AWOL and matters became so charged that perhaps even the maoist-turned-neocon, Albert Langer, was dreaming of recreating the Monash Soviet. Similar upheavals are occurring elsewhere judging by reports in the Higher Education section of The Australian.
This means that whatever is occurring at the University of Melbourne, although doubtless having its campus specific aspects, is part of a much larger systemic process. It is not Melbourne specific. It is this systemic process that Singer neglects to dwell upon, as do critics of the Melbourne Model.
To remedy the tragedy that has befallen the university in Australia would require coming to grips with this systemic aspect to the crisis.
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