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‘That’s the scary part, who’s next?’: SCA ‘designed to fail’ under Sydney University accounting model

A corporate accounting model introduced under the last Strategic Plan to bring schools and faculties to heel was set up to fail the embattled SCA, critics say. Natalie Buckett and Tom Joyner report.

An accounting model used by the University of Sydney to justify the closure of the SCA has been criticised by academics and a NSW MP as “designed to fail” the embattled art school.

The model, known as the University Economic Model, measures the financial burden of the University of Sydney’s schools and faculties by calculating the ratio of student enrolment to square meterage, requiring schools with a lower ratio – such as the SCA – to pay a higher annual internal levy to the University.

Faculties like the Business School or Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, which rely on dense lectures with no specialist teaching spaces or equipment, are best suited to the model, according to NSW Greens MP Jamie Parker.

“What we argue is that SCA is unlike any other faculty because it has a studio-based practice which means it’s impossible for it to be competitive while it’s using that model,” Parker said. “The problem with that is the structure of a place like SCA is automatically designed to fail.”

“The UEM disproportionately falls on SCA because of the type of learning practice that it has. It’s incredibly difficult for SCA to make any kind of a surplus.”

Implemented by the University under the 2011-2015 Strategic Plan, the UEM is used to encourage “mutual accountability” in the allocation of budgets to individual schools and faculties. In other words, the plan disproportionately privileges faculties like the Business School, with high enrollment and low space requirements.

A spokesperson for the University argued despite their small size, other faculties like the Law School and Pharmacy were “financially robust”. “There are opportunities to make SCA more sustainable by better utilising space on the Camperdown-Darlington campus.”

SCA senior painting lecturer Dr Matthys Gerber said the UEM was being used to “cherry pick” schools and faculties by University management.

“It’s not an educational outcome, it’s how it comes out as an economic model. The student is not someone you educate, it’s also someone that’s a client,” he said. “Why are they then laying waste to an art school? In two years time we might not actually have any art schools in Sydney. That’s the scary part, who’s next?”

The University announced in July that SCA, which has occupied its harbourside Rozelle campus since 1996, would move to the Camperdown campus, and the Bachelor of Visual Arts ‘reimagined’ in 2017.

“If there’s a problem with uni management, you don’t destroy art practice which has been so valuable on that campus. [Management] would like to abandon the arts. Frankly, it’s not a big generator of revenue for them,” said Parker.

More than 130 SCA students, represented by solicitor Thomas McLoughlin of the SRC legal service, have since launched a consumer claim in NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal against the University for misleading conduct.

McLoughlin told Honi the UEM was not a transparent mechanism for assessing the financial burden of the arts school and should be put to greater public scrutiny.

“We need the NSW Auditor-General to investigate this, and experts like [public accounts expert] Betty Con Walker to deconstruct this internal tax [the UEM],” he said.

“Yes, the SCA could have higher revenue if it had a higher concentration of students per square metre, but SCA demonstrably covers its expenditure with a surplus of $4.3 million in 2016 before the [UEM’s] internal tax.”

McLoughlin’s words echo those of former NSW arts minister Peter Collins, who called earlier this year for the SCA decision to be reviewed by the NSW Parliament’s public accounts committee.

“[University administrators] are really looking at the bottom line. How valid their figures are in reaching their bottom line I think is open to examination,” he told Honi.

In an email the University spokesperson said the UEM was among other factors contributing to the SCA decision.

“The University’s decision to move the SCA to the Camperdown-Darlington campus was based on a number of factors, including the fact that its budget, including the UEM, was in significant decline and its student numbers were persistently decreasing (20 per cent over the last five years), also contributing to the deficit.”