Framing the debate

The University’s justifications for the closure are weak at best

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Professor Stephen Garton, the Provost, sits third in the University’s chain of command. Among other roles, he is tasked with overseeing faculty budgets and setting the future course of the University. Though not the merger’s sole engineer, his office has been responsible for the bulk of the planning, and he’s been dealt the role of salesman.

Ask the Provost, as Honi did, why USyd wants to vacate Callan Park, and he’ll give you four reasons:

  1. The Callan Park campus is financially unsustainable.
  2. Enrolments at the SCA are in decline, worsening its financial position.
  3. The merger will allow for the creation of a state “Centre of Excellence”
  4. Callan Park’s geographical isolation means it’s not reaching its educational potential because visual arts students can’t take main campus electives like art history, and vice versa.

Honi now takes a closer look at each of the justifications for the merger.

Financial unsustainability

The SCA is forecast to run a $5.5 million deficit this year, which we’re told is the biggest per-capita deficit of any faculty in the University. The data supporting this figure has not been released.

So what? Is every faculty, especially those that are resource-intensive, lack industry backing and whose studio-based pedagogy necessitates low student densities, expected to run at a profit?

No, according to the Provost. “We’re not opposed to cross-subsidy, we have cross-subsidy for a number of faculties… But the issue is we have a responsibility for the whole university, so is sustaining the highest per-capita deficit in the best interests of the University, as a whole? Because other students are paying for it,” he told Honi.

The first question that needs to be asked is: at what point does a faculty’s loss-making render it unsustainable? The answer for now appears to be $5.5 million, or the corresponding figure in per-capita terms.

Although not in the best interests of the University to sustain the SCA’s deficit, it is apparently in its interests to sustain that of the Conservatorium, which in absolute terms, is larger.

The Provost explains the difference – “They get cross-subsidy, but they are the premier musical performance institution in the country, and certainly in the state, and there’s no competition. So if the Conservatorium went, the entire state capacity would be gone except for the Newcastle Conservatorium”, he said.

Arguably the SCA is the premier studio-based visual arts institution in the country, certainly the state. It seems the Conservatorium, and other loss-making but prestigious units the University is prepare to cross-subsidise, like the Classics, fit the Ivy League-QS Ranking boosting-Melbourne toppling vision the executive have for the University. In their eyes, the SCA is an expensive, mediocre appendage.

Whether or not the SCA always ran at a loss, it only really became a problem after the University adopted the “University Economic Model” (UEM) in 2010. In simple terms, the UEM made faculties responsible for balancing their revenue and expenditure, where previously they only had to worry about how they would spend a centrally-allocated lump sum.

The move to the UEM was always going to have a variable impact across faculties, so the “Strategic Realignment Allocation” fund was created for the winners to prop up the losers, for five years.

The SCA was one of the losers, to whom the Provost said “we’re going to give you five years to explore as many strategies as you can, and at the end of that five years, maybe six years, we would assess all the strategies that you’ve done and make a judgement call about your sustainability.”

The onus then fell onto the SCA’s Dean, Professor Colin Rhodes, to turn its fortune around. According to the Provost, he tried. Rhodes minimised the space the SCA occupied, adjusted credit points to make SCA subjects more attractive to main campus students, and attempted to target the international student market. The resulting “marginal” gains spurred the declaration of unsustainability, according to the Provost.

It’s fair to question the authenticity of both the University’s and Rhodes’ efforts in turning the SCA around. In 2012, only two years after the UEM’s introduction, Rhodes proposed a merger with the National Art School (NAS). He had the University’s blessing at the time, but NAS rejected it. The changes to the credit points were made in 2014 – merger talks with UNSW began in the first half of 2015.

And in moving to the UEM and imposing its five-year ultimatum, didn’t the University create the very financial situation it is using to justify the merger? By just how much were the SCA’s finances required to improve to halt a severance? By how much could they improve?

Another vexing financial question is: why can’t institution that made $158.2 million last year spare $5 million for the SCA? According to the Provost, that revenue figure is misleading. The University is required “to report a number of things as profit that are not profit.” He points to unspent research grants, Commonwealth infrastructure grants and directed philanthropy. Only “a couple of million” is disposable income and potentially directed to the SCA, he says.

Declining student numbers

The Provost has repeatedly claimed there has been a 20% decline in SCA enrolments over the past five years, which has compounded its financial woes. This isn’t the full picture – although there has been a downward trend.

Garton says, “when you look at the UAC preferences, so this is for the whole state, so for all the institutions in the state that offer visual arts, there’s been a very significant decline in the preferences. So it’s a shrinking pool of students interested in doing [visual arts].”

UAC is very protective of its data, but it is interesting that UNSWAD’s and NAS’ enrolments seem to have resisted the trend [see below].

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The problem appears to be SCA-specific. But Garton, and it appears the University, cannot precisely identify what that problem is. Let’s consider a hypothetical 20% decline in international student enrolments over five years. The University would undoubtedly go to great lengths to decipher and respond to that trend.

It is hard to make case that the University has been genuine in its attempts to revitalise the SCA when apart from “the market”, it can’t explain the decline.

According to the Provost, “the fact is, we’ve been out marketing nationally and internationally, and given more marketing resources to the SCA, but the preferences are in a long, slow decline, so, all the marketing resources in the world are not gonna change a fundamental public perception that these are not the most attractive degrees.”

Centre of Excellence

The “Heads of Agreement” email made no mention of the SCA’s finances. Instead, the merger was justified as the pursuit of a “Centre of Excellence”.

As a most basic critique, if the University’s genuine motive in proceeding with the merger was to create a Centre of Excellence, isn’t it reasonable to expect that it would want to be involved in something so “excellent”, rather than completely handing over the reins to UNSW?

An obvious question, one that countless SCA students and staff are asking, is what makes a merged institution more “excellent” than SCA’s specialist, studio-based offering?

Garton considers it “a good question” and concedes there’s merit in both models, but “on balance” favours the merger because “you’ve got diversity and a significant number of staff and students, firing off each other in terms of classes and intellectual firepower”. And of course, with the merger solution, USyd absolves itself of a loss-making faculty.

Callan Park doesn’t maximise educational potential

With this, the University has a point. The SCA’s geographical isolation means SCA students can’t easily take art history, film study and architecture subjects, and main campus students can’t easily pick up visual arts subjects. Both sides lose out financially and pedagogically.

But there is an equally legitimate and opposing argument that the SCA’s geographical isolation and unique facilities maximise its educational potential. SCA students say Callan Park’s idyllic surrounds and historical buildings facilitate the art-making process. Also, where else has the space and facilities to offer the SCA’s unique studio-based, hands-on education?

Conclusions

The first thing the University should have done is be more transparent. When you’re uprooting 600 students and restructuring their degrees, you have no right to justify it with cherry-picked and ambiguous figures. If change is warranted, prove it.

The University’s commitment to turning around the SCA’s fortunes is questionable. Why were discussions about a merger with NAS instigated long before exhausting other options? Why, still, can’t the University explain the SCA’s decline in enrolments?

If, indeed, UAC preferences for visual arts courses are waning, and maintaining many, small visual arts institutions means they will suffocate one another, then yes, merger discussions are justified. But, the present situation has not reached that point, the University is in a position to be able to support the SCA at Callan Park (like it supports the Conservatorium), and UAC trends are just that – trends.

The University has made a call on Callan Park based on the numbers, finally quantifying the deficit they will tolerate. It is dubious that the Arts are susceptible to such cold calculation. When does