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Up to 250 undergraduate Arts subjects under threat at Sydney Uni in “major attack”

Subjects that are at risk of being cut include many from Hebrew, Biblical & Jewish Studies, Visual Arts, Philosophy and more.

A leaked list of enrolment numbers for units in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) reveals that up to 250 undergraduate subjects and over 240 postgraduate subjects are in danger from the University’s latest Draft Change Proposal (DCP).

Subjects that are at risk of being cut at the University of Sydney include many from Hebrew, Biblical & Jewish Studies, Visual Arts, Philosophy and more.

Schools have been told they are required to take specific actions to “refine their UoS [Unit of Study] offering for 2022” in line with the reforms outlined in the FASS DCP, and must decide by 15 October which units to “pause” for a year or scrap completely.

The DCP outlines that no undergraduate units would be offered in 2022 that have historically attracted fewer than 24 students “unless necessary for student progression and completion.” 

A University spokesperson said FASS is “committed to maintaining the comprehensive suite of disciplines it is renowned for” but that a “curriculum sustainability project” was necessary to maintain all 50 disciplines.

1 in 3 undergraduate FASS units at risk according to leaked data

Honi has seen a leaked list of units and enrolment numbers provided to staff, which shows that at least 252 of 748 (33.7%) undergraduate units are at risk of being cut.

In calculations, Honi excluded Open Learning Environment Units (OLEs) and units which had an exchange or in-country component to them, due to changed circumstances around COVID-19.

Honi also excluded subjects which were included on the list, but are planned to be offered for the first time in 2022. 

The list appears to be incomplete as some units currently on offer are missing, suggesting the University compiled the data in a rush. 

Approximately a third of the units marked red on the list are concentrated in Languages, followed by Education, Hebrew, Biblical & Jewish Studies and Sydney College of the Arts (SCA).

SCA is in danger of a 43% reduction to its units, just two years after the move from Rozelle to Camperdown campus which saw a loss of space. Units under threat include electives offered to students on main campus, despite the fact that it was hoped the relocation would facilitate more collaboration.

A University spokesperson said that “student enrolments are strongly up and the SCA’s annual multimillion-dollar deficit has been reduced to less than a million,” failing to account for why SCA subjects were then still on the list of potential cuts.

After already having faced cutbacks over decades, several Indigenous Studies units are listed as having less than 24 enrolments, including Race, Racism and Indigenous Australia, De/colonising Indigenous Education, Indigenous Studies Methodologies and Indigenous Wellbeing.

Since publication, the University has promised that “there will be no reductions to Indigenous Studies units”, and said that the School of Languages has finalised its offerings for 2022 without any “significant” reductions in units of study, “and the full agreement of its 15 departments.”

FASS3500 Service Learning in Indigenous Communities is at risk, despite being immensely popular with students who participated in the community classroom-style unit.

Restructures to FASS are being proposed despite the Faculty forecasting a surplus of $135 million in 2021 and admitting that it is in a “strong financial position” as a result of increasing international student enrolments.

FASS has cited “structural problems in [its] business model” due to decreasing government funding and the need to “future-proof” the Faculty as justification for the cuts, which are intended to remove $500k-750k from its cost-base.

Included on the list of undergraduate units with less than 24 enrolments are, among others:

  • 29 subjects in Education and Social Work
  • 28 of 29 subjects in Hebrew, Biblical & Jewish Studies
  • 15 subjects each from the Sydney College of the Arts and in Classics and Ancient History
  • 10 subjects each in Chinese Studies and Spanish and Latin American Studies
  • All 9 subjects in Indonesian Studies and Modern Greek and Byzantine Studies, and 9 of 10 subjects in Arabic Languages and Cultures
  • 8 subjects each in Philosophy and Germanic Studies
  • 7 each in Studies of Religion, Sociology, Economics and Italian Studies

With the list being incomplete, it is possible that more subjects could be targets of streamlining or restructuring under the DCP. It should be noted that not all of these units will necessarily be cut where it will prevent students from completing a major or minor in them.

Almost half of postgrad units in danger; Education the biggest loser

Honi’s calculations show that 241 of 532 postgraduate subjects (45.3%) have less than 16 enrolments, which is the DCP’s threshold for subjects which are 5000-level and above.

The School of Education and Social Work in particular could lose up to 89 subjects across the pre-K, primary and high school curriculum, including subjects in Indigenous education, mathematics and science.

A University spokesperson has since told Honi that “accreditation requirements mean there is no impact to the Education offer from our School of Education and Social Work.”

Elsewhere, the School of Economics has 22 units under the threshold, English has 11 and Art History has 9. Due to the specialised nature of some postgraduate departments, several departments are facing all of their units being potentially cut.

Degrees to be standardised

FASS appears to be moving towards standardising Arts degrees rather than prioritising student choice.

Two core units for each major will be required, leaving students with even less choice for electives in other areas and to pursue their interests. 

Since 2018, degree space has already been filled by the compulsory Industry and Community Projects (ICPUs) that are widely disliked by students and staff alike.

Ironically, every single ICPU has attracted an enrolment of lower than 24 students, meaning that by the University’s rationale, they should be at risk of being cut.

Since publication, a University spokesperson disputed that ICPUs are disliked on the basis that they “receive some of the highest unit of study scores,” and clarified that their enrolment numbers in the leaked list were inaccurate.

Similar units offered by the Faculty through different disciplines will also be merged and made to be co-tabled and co-taught under the proposal.

A University spokesperson claimed that the proposal to “increase shared teaching” and “develop core units of study to teach discipline-specific concepts and methods” meant that the “very targeted reduction in the number of units offered … will not negatively impact [their] students.”

Honours to become less specialised

Honours students in less popular courses may see some of their disciplinary coursework units scrapped from 2023 and replaced with a generic “methodological unit of study,” which will allow for less specialisation in disciplinary research methods.

For Honours courses where the overall cohort is less than 20 students over the past three years, the Honours pathway will be reformed to include one shared unit of Honours study with other areas (FASS-wide or School-wide) and one unit of “discipline-specific Honours training.”

Only five FASS Honours disciplines have an average of 20 student enrolments, meaning that all Honours courses except Government and International Relations, History, Philosophy, Economics and English could face reforms under the DCP.

Students’ Representative Council President Swapnik Sanagavarapu told Honi that “dedicated coursework is very much essential to the rigour of an Honours program — students will lose so much of the value of undertaking honours if they are unable to learn about higher order research methodology within their specific discipline.”

“Not only is this worse for their education, it’s also worse for their skills, career prospects and prospects for further study.”

Students and staff oppose restructures as a whole

Sanagavarapu said that the restructure was a “shameful and devastating attack on the quality of education in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.”

“The slated course cuts will lose invaluable amounts of knowledge and deprive students of the ability to explore heterodox and niche areas of study. Intellectual diversity should be at the heart of a humanities education and that is precisely what is being lost with these course cuts.”

SRC Education Officer Maddie Clark similarly criticised the proposal as a “major attack on the Faculty” and said “we need a staff and student fight back to stop them.”

“For students, it will mean many crucial subjects are no longer taught, that people will be left in the lurch with their degrees and it will also mean the standardisation of classes across the board.”

“As the University of Sydney has one of the most diverse Arts course offerings, this attack represents the end of these subjects being taught in Australia overall.”

Students and staff are opposing the Future FASS curriculum reforms wholesale and have circulated around a dozen open letters decrying the latest attacks on the standard of learning. 

A Clubs Against the Cuts Facebook page has been set up to oppose the FASS DCP, with students signing on from Sydney Arts Students Society, Sydney University Dramatic Society, Media and Communications Society, International and Global Studies Society, FrenchSoc, Italian Society, German Society, Spanish & Latin American Society, Sydney Uni Greek Society, MUSE, Linguistics Society, and BarberSoc.

Gender Studies students have called a strike for 13 October to oppose restructuring of the Department of Gender & Cultural Studies.

Students are building towards a Student General Meeting called by the Education Action Group for 27 October, where they will vote against any change proposals to FASS.

This article was updated on 8 October 2021 with University comment.