Out of breath from running up Footbridge’s stairs, I was thrilled that the stars had aligned enough for me to make it to my first lecture for the semester: GOVT2901: Contemporary Issues in Politics and International Relations II. Designed to develop problem-solving skills in a team setting, the unit is a core subject for students in the Politics & International Relations (PIR) stream.
Imagine the dismay of students, then, when the introduction slide outlining our weekly guest lecturers contained two empty slots. Dr Jamie Roberts, our unit coordinator and sole tutor, explained that due to staff cuts there were no subject matter experts left in the department for our topics in Weeks 9 and 11. Roberts had already been forced to outsource a lecturer from the Australian National University (ANU) for Week 2’s lecture on the Indo-Pacific region. He also warned that Week 9 would likely be cancelled as the class falls on a public holiday, and Week 11 had been defeatedly labelled ‘TBA (sigh)’. Dr Roberts, like many of the surviving academics in the Department of Government and International Relations, is struggling to provide quality teaching due to staff cuts anecdotally exceeding 40 per cent of the department.
The effects of these cuts means that overworked academics, decreased elective choices, and a declining quality of teaching for students is now the norm. Dr Roberts’ job is unconventionally split “70:20:10” between teaching, administrative and research roles, however he notes that it “feels like [it adds up to] 120” due to an overloading of these responsibilities; teaching and administration in particular. This stress negatively impacts academics personal and professional lives, and makes it even harder for them to provide quality lessons or meet tight marking turnaround times.
Second year Politics and International Relations student Oliver Petkovich explained that students taking GOVT2921: Intermediate International Relations last semester faced a similar issue to those taking GOVT2901, with no new content being presented in Weeks 11, 12 or 13 of the unit.
“During a tutorial, our tutor explained that we were not being taught the International Law topic because they no longer had an expert to teach it. We ran out of content by Week 10, and the tutors did their best to still provide engaging lessons,” Petkovich said. Despite GOVT2921 having consistently high enrolments, there is no one to actually teach the subject if expert academics have been let go.
Not only have austerity measures impeded upon academics’ ability to teach courses with well-rounded content, they have decreased already limited third year selective choices.
Barely a week before the start of semester last year, the selective unit GOVT3986: Gender, Security and Human Rights was also cancelled; currently, it is only offered remotely. This last minute cancellation created major issues for students’ degree progression, as they scrambled to enrol in another course with limited availability to ensure they could complete their degree on time.
Third year student Amita Singh expressed frustration over the administrative burden on staff and lack of communication with students. She says she was “disappointed with the course not existing and the lack of notice prior to university classes beginning, as [students] rarely have units in GOVT/IR that primarily focus on women in policy”. Further, students taking Aboriginal and TSI Politics and Policy told Honi that the current unit-coordinator, while a knowledgeable academic, replaced a First Nations academic who was originally set to take the course.
The experiences of these students and staff are representative of an endemic issue in the priorities of the university’s highly corporatised system of management. Frankly, given the billion-dollar surplus made by the University this year, no one is buying the narrative that the University is a financial victim of ‘hard times’ due to the pandemic, such that it cannot afford to properly fund the Department of Government and International Relations (not to mention other units in the Faculty of Arts and Social Science and the university at large).
It’s critical that students engage in ongoing strike action and advocacy, such as by joining the picket lines and the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), to reinforce the fact that staff working conditions are directly commensurate with the quality of student education.
Another important way that students can show support for staff and advocate for a better education is to fill out each units’ End of Semester Survey when they pop up in your emails later this semester. Though they may seem tiresome, staff stress that these student feedback surveys are one of the few ways that they can justify the merit of a course to University management. As mechanisms of change their power is admittedly shrouded in managerial obscurity, as it has long been disproven that student enjoyment of courses is the deciding factor in staff cuts, or whether the subject as a whole is continued or cancelled.
Even though end of semester surveys are no substitute for joining collectives, building student movements together, or raising your voice at protests, these events are not accessible to many students with disabilities or sensory sensitivities. Surveys are then an important way that each of us can make an active contribution to our education. At the very least, we can all spend ten minutes providing positive feedback to our tutors and unit coordinators who spend countless unpaid hours providing the best possible education.
In response to the situation surrounding teaching within the department, a University of Sydney spokesperson said that there had been “no “staff cuts” although a small number of academic took voluntary redundancy.
Additionally, the spokesperson released a statement to address concerns surrounding the department: “Some of the units of study named in this article were rested in 2022 for a range of legitimate reasons and will be taught in future semesters.
“Students enrolled in the named units of study were provided with the required weeks of content (it is correct a public holiday in Week 9 legitimately precluded a lecture being held that week). Other units of study named as ‘cancelled’ did in fact run, for example GOVT3986. No student has been unable to progress due to the resting of any GOVT units of study. Movements of staff and changes to curriculum offerings are standard for large units like Government and International Relations. Some GIR units with historically low enrolments have been retired to reduce duplication and produce a more consistent student experience.”
Update: The article has been updated to include comments from the University of Sydney and reflects that GOVT3986 ran in the 2021 academic year in addition to GOVT3655, GOVT3665 and GOVT3989 will be taught in future semesters after being temporarily held in hiatus.