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USyd’s Plan to End the Arts Degree

Rebecca Wong offers a handy guide on what the university’s Strategic Plan means for you.

Insipid PNG Compressed

The University Sydney is in the process of developing its 2016-2020 strategic plan. It has so far released two discussion papers that suggest radical changes to how the university delivers undergraduate education and organises its research funding. Proposed initiatives include stretching the Arts degree to four years and dramatically reducing the number of degrees on offer.

The most drastic change is the proposed introduction of a four-year Liberal Studies degree, in line with education systems in the US and parts of East Asia. This would replace three year degrees such as Bachelors of Arts, Commerce and Science. The underlying rationale is to provide students with the opportunity to study a greater breadth of disciplines, as well as allowing them more leeway in exploring subject areas before committing to a major. Additionally, a four-year degree would offer practical, skills-based units, allowing students to undertake research projects and internships should they choose not to pursue Honours, which would be embedded in the fourth year of the degree.

The discussion paper also canvases streamlining specialist degrees, incorporating them as programs within a Liberal Studies degree. Earlier this year, Vice Chancellor Michael Spence suggested that the University of Sydney might seek to emulate the Melbourne model in this regard, potentially cutting the number of undergraduate degrees offered from 122 to a mere 20. The sheer number of Arts degree variants currently offered (INGS, BPES, BA/Languages etc), each with its own inflated and seemingly arbitrary ATAR cutoff, speaks to the university’s obsession with courting elite students. Post-streamlining, it’s unclear how the university will convince GPS boys doing Arts degrees that they’re still special, though the discussion paper does suggest the option of offering the four-year Liberal Studies degree as an “elite program for high-achieving students”.

Spence also flagged the culturally entrenched predominance of “old, white, male” professors and students as an issue which the university must tackle over the next few years––one third of USyd’s undergraduate cohort are from schools which charge at least $16,000 in fees. Despite this, the discussion paper is light on suggestions for concrete initiatives to increase the proportion of USyd students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Another major proposed change is the replacement of double undergraduate degrees with vertical Bachelor’s/Master’s combinations. This would apply to entry-to-profession qualifications such as Law, Education and Project Management. The change would see professional degrees undertaken after the completion of a broader Liberal Studies degree. The impact of this shift will largely depend on its implementation. It is unclear whether entry to these degrees will be determined by ATAR, or performance in a Bachelor’s or other tertiary degree. In the latter instance, vertical pathways may counteract the problem of high ATAR cutoffs for entry-to-profession degrees such as Law and Engineering, which constitute a significant barrier to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The shift towards Master’s degrees lends credence to persistent rumours that the university is looking to phase out Honours entirely.

In a consultation survey conducted in March, students and staff ranked ‘fostering of teaching excellence’ first and second, respectitvely, out of eight proposed core components of the university’s strategic focus. When asked to rate the university’s performance in these areas, however, students ranked fostering of teaching excellence second last, and staff ranked it last. These findings are emblematic of a broader disconnect between the expectations of students and the goals of university management, with the unveiling of the $385m charles Perkins Centre serving as the backdrop to protests by the Education Action Group and National Tertiary Education Union over fee deregulation and staff cuts.

The university’s second discussion paper, focusing on research, proposes significant changes to the allocation of discretionary research funding between different disciplines. Citing a past tendency towards ‘breadth’ in research over depth, the University is looking to focus on a ‘number of selected [research] areas’.

The areas will be chosen based on four criterion: the quality, social impact, reputational impact and resource cost of potential research. Potential focus areas mentioned by the report include health issues and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander initiatives. While the report never explicitly excludes any faculties or disciplines from funding, it seems likely that academics in less preeminent faculties––such as political economy––now face an additional hurdle to accessing the funding.

Vice Chancellor Michael Spence.

Michael Spence

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