University of Newcastle improving student experience???

A number of decisions and actions by the University of Newcastle (UON) leadership over the 12 months or so, have left me angry and very disillusioned.

I’m sick of their rhetoric that they are making changes to improve the experience of students, I cannot support some of their decisions, and I am angry when they have shown little empathy and compassion.

The Vice Chancellor and University management have continually claimed that:

Our focus is on improving the student experience. Our students can feel comfortable with their degree selection knowing we will help them map the best program [or degree] to achieve their study and career goals.

Their actions do not support this claim. Time and time again, I hear of ways that students are being negatively impacted by the proposed changes. There is no better example than the axing of the degree I used to teach into: Australia’s first (and only) Master or Graduate Certificate in Family Studies.

The University continues to tell students:

Please be assured that the degree you are enrolled in is the degree you will graduate with.

The university also claims that:

The University will ‘teach out’ discontinuing programs, meaning that any students who have already commenced a degree will be able to complete that program.

While the first statement is technically correct, the second is simply not true. Yes, students will be still be able to graduate with the degree: they just can’t complete any family studies courses (or subjects) because we are NOT allowed to teach out the degree. They can complete the degree by undertaking other postgraduate level courses from the UON or from other universities. The problem is that we started the degree because there were no other family studies degrees in the country so there are very few other relevant courses in the country.

This is NOT teaching out. The program convenor even had to argue to be allowed to offer the course “Foundations of Family Studies” one more time. This core course was only offered in Trimester 1, so any students who had started in Trimester 2 or 3 last year, had not completed it. Other core courses (that were compulsory) were not offered again. So yes, they might still graduate with a degree in Family Studies, but it is meaningless if the degree is filled with unrelated courses.

Students undertaking their Master degree have to complete 8–12 courses, each of which costs $1000–$1200. This means that a Master of Family Studies student might have spent thousands of dollars on their degree only to discover the courses they were promised are no longer available and their only option if they want to finish, is to do other subjects that are not as relevant.

This is NOT improving students’ experience. The Uni might decide to axe the degree, but if they were truly concerned about students’ experience and not just about saving money, they would have allowed us to teach out the degree and allowed students to receive the degree they enrolled in.

I have heard from students who wish the University was more honest. They could accept some of the changes more easily if the University said it was a cost cutting exercise, rather than pretending it was to improve the experience of students. Things like cutting popular or important courses, and getting rid of staff do not improve the experience of students.

The University claims that the course “optimisation” (read cutting) process, which saw around 25% of the Uni’s courses “consolidated or discontinued”:

Will significantly remove duplication, streamline degree structures, and foster better interdisciplinary collaboration.

If this was true and it was not primarily a cost cutting exercise, why did they discontinue a course I taught on family and community engagement which was completed by over 1600 students from over 50 different degrees since 2008? I think it is clear they cut it because they wanted to terminate the positions of all the staff in the discipline of family studies. (Which is what has happened.)

I find it very concerning when I look at some of the changes through a gender lens. There is a real difference when we look at the degrees that have been totally discontinued compared to degrees that have been discontinued but have been amalgamated into a new or existing degree.

The degrees that are being totally discontinued are generally female dominated:

  1. Bachelor of Creative Industries
  2. Bachelor of Creative Industries / Bachelor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship
  3. Bachelor of Fine Art (Honours)
  4. Master of Health Science
  5. Master of Applied Management (Nursing)
  6. Master of Family Studies
  7. Graduate Certificate in Family Studies
  8. Master of Studies
  9. Graduate Certificate of Studies

The degrees which are being amalgamated or incorporated into a new or existing degree are generally male dominated:

  1. Bachelor of Technology (Renewable Energy Systems)
  2. Bachelor of Mechatronics Engineering (Honours) /Bachelor of Business
  3. Bachelor of Mechatronics Engineering (Honours)/Bachelor of Science
  4. Bachelor of Information Technology (Honours)
  5. Bachelor of Computer Science (Honours)
  6. Master of Workplace Health and Safety
  7. Master of Professional Engineering (Chemical)
  8. Master of Professional Engineering (Environmental)
  9. Master of Professional Engineering (Mechatronics)
  10. Master of Professional Engineering (Computer Systems Engineering)
  11. Master of Professional Engineering (Software Engineering)
  12. Master of Environment and Business Management
  13. Master of Environmental Management and Sustainability

The impact of the changes on gender equity can be seen very clearly in the School of Creative Industries where 13 positions marked to go, with a disproportionate number of women losing their jobs. If the plans go ahead, male staff will be reduced by 14% from 22 to 19, while female staff will be reduced by 53% from 19 to 9. According to staff:

Those in charge of this proposed change have acknowledged the gender imbalance that will be caused through these changes. But their plan is to address this after they have cut ten women’s jobs, by appointing more women, instead of preventing these cuts to begin with.

I have already written about the insensitive way some of the changes have been handled. For example, a senior university staff member who wrote the following when he was announcing all the courses that were being axed. There was no acknowledgement that the decision was going to cause pain, sadness, anger and job losses:

I am very pleased to report that last Thursday saw the confirmation of all course and program changes proposed in the Course Optimisation process by the University’s Program and Course Approval Committee.

And the way in which the Director of the Family Action Centre was told not to tell Centre staff about the Master of Family Studies being axed even after it had been announced in a public faculty forum (a recording of which was available to all staff).

I am afraid these experiences have left me with little faith in the senior management of the University. I must say that I have no complaints about how I have been personally treated as an individual by my Head of School, the director of the Family Action Centre, staff from human resources and my colleagues. They have all been very supportive.

The recent announcement of the University’s new Chancellor has only made me feel even more concerned about the future of the University. I wonder why they have thought it was appropriate to appoint Mark Vaile who, as the Chairperson of Whitehaven Coal, has argued that banks have a “moral duty” to support the nation’s biggest industries, including coal.

I agree with Richard Denniss who argues that:

I cannot understand how the council of a university whose motto is “I look ahead” could appoint a chancellor who is not just the chair of a coal company, but the same coal company that just argued in a court case that we have no obligation to future generations when approving coal mines.

I have found the last 8 or 9 months very difficult and I am disheartened and disillusioned to see the University make decisions that seem to be more about running a business than being an ethical leader in creating positive change for our region and the world.

If you liked this post please follow my blog, and you might like to look at:

  1. “Course optimisation” and the end of my time at the Family Action Centre
  2. Blogging as an academic
  3. Don’t call me doctor!
  4. 4 types of power: What are power over; power with; power to and power within?
  5. Creating an online course on engaging families and communities
  6. 7 principles guiding my work

If you find any problems with the blog, (e.g., broken links or typos) I’d love to hear about them. You can either add a comment below or contact me via the Contact page.


About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, environmentalist, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace, sustainability.
This entry was posted in Being an academic, Family Action Centre and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

I'd love to hear what you think!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.