Why you should be friends with your lecturers

We can’t afford to let staff-student solidarity die.

The struggle between direct practicality and abstract intellectual benefit is a constant feature of Australian culture, and holds particular prominence in the university setting. 

Whitlam’s implementation of free tertiary education for all rested on a conception of the arts as a public good, and an integral part of Australian identity. In decades since, consecutive Liberal governments’ fiscal austerity has depleted the role of leisurely intellect in both our culture and our education. 

The economic reasoning for this is muddy — Australia Institute data released in 2021 suggested the arts sector creates six times as many jobs as construction, per dollar of turnover. It’s logical to conclude that the framing of decisions about arts funding aren’t purely fiscal. Instead, there is a divide in opinions about which social investments are worthwhile. Nowhere is this more prominent than in universities. Recent years have seen the price of generalist degrees doubling, and subject breadth in Bachelor of Arts programs at multiple universities thinning out.

Future FASS, the plan put forward by the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences claiming to ensure the sustainability of University offerings in the coming decades, is ostensibly a program of renewal. The priorities of the restructure are to remove inefficiencies in the Faculty’s administration, promote interdisciplinarity, and ensure there is continued breadth and depth in research and teaching.

Future FASS was developed under the same guiding principles that underpin the in-development 2032 Strategic Plan. Commenting on the future of the University’s teaching and research operation, Provost Annamarie Jagose explained that some teaching or research activity may have to be cut.

“We’re a very comprehensive university; we do a bit of almost everything. What principles would we apply in order to think about what we would step away from? What could we bear not to do…” said Jagose in a 2032 Strategy webinar in February.

“In every one of the subject areas we teach, do we expect there to be equivalently high-performing research cultures? Or in some instances, are research and teaching questions separable, so that we have teaching activities not necessarily underpinned by high-performing research.”

This attitude infuses the University’s recent attempts to undermine the 40-40-20 model, which allows academics to divide their time between 40 per cent teaching, 40 per cent research and 20 per cent administration. Formally allocated time for research is a global staple for leading universities.

Of course, there is no inherent requirement that a Bachelor degree be delivered on such a principle. Having academics prioritise teaching would certainly improve revenue generation: in 2021 and 2020, course fees brought in $1.76 and $1.48 billion. Meanwhile, research and consulting netted $462 million in 2021 and $423 million in 2020. A vast majority of this came in the form of federal research funding, not industry partnerships.

With over a billion dollar difference between teaching and research-based revenue streams, the motivation for the University to emphasise teaching becomes clear. Against a backdrop of decreased federal funding and international student enrolments, it’s a survival strategy.

This is the context of Future FASS. While it is unlikely that the program will sound the sudden death knell for Arts at USyd, managerialism and austerity will cause its slow decline. In response to hostile governments that have seen tertiary education as a privilege, not a right, the University and FASS are responding like any survivalist would: with rations.

Over the course of your degree, you may have noticed courses no longer on offer, a move to mixed or exclusively-online teaching for some courses, or increasing class sizes. This may seem anomalous or simply unfortunate, without highlighting an obvious decline in Arts education. But a slow death over decades is a death, nonetheless.

Even if we believe this narrative of austerity — which we ought not to, given the $2.54 billion in operating surpluses since 2011 — we might wonder how to push back, to restore autonomy to staff and students.

Fortunately, USyd has a rich history of resistance, pioneering new ways to research and teach, engaging students with the cutting edge of their discipline. And of course, very little of it was approved by management.

This uni ain’t big enough for the two economists

Most students entering a major in Political Economy or a left-wing student political space quickly learn of the contested history of the discipline at USyd.

During the 1950s to 1970s postwar era, the field of economics was gripped by one paradigm: the so-called neoclassical synthesis. This approach sterilised economics of its specific social context, and severely restricted thought on what governments could do to address social ailments like unemployment, gender inequality, and racial disparities.

As a social science, many students and staff argued that economics should play an important role in addressing the issues of the 60s and 70s: the Vietnam War, rampant gender inequality, civil rights, South African apartheid, and environmental degradation. 

Students saw very little scope for their economics education to explore these issues academically or prepare them to tackle them afterwards. They desired an alternative: Political Economy.

The name ‘Political Economy’ refers to the earliest examples of economic literature — the likes of Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and includes contemporary strands such as ecological and feminist economics. Where the mainstream approach failed, these subdisciplines stood apart by reintroducing a political emphasis to economics.

But not everyone in the Faculty of Economics appreciated the Political Economy push. From 1969 there was constant tension within the Faculty, including a struggle that brought together over 100 teachers and 4000 students together in an 11-day strike in 1976 at its peak. The struggle would also engage (then-students) Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and former-Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

It all began when the latest iteration of the mainstream neoclassical curriculum was introduced in 1969. Frank Stilwell, a lecturer who joined the University in 1970, told Honi that several staff were upset with how the program was introduced.

“The sub-professorial staff were annoyed about the authoritarian way in which this new [version of the neoclassical synthesis] syllabus had been introduced by some recently-appointed professors; and the students, frankly, just found it overly theoretical, overly mathematical, tedious, and irrelevant to what they thought the real world was about,” Stilwell said.

A project like Future FASS claims to be student-centric, yet the historic development of Political Economy’s course offerings demonstrates how far you can actually take this principle when it’s students deciding what’s “student-centric,” not management. In response to the negative feedback on the economics syllabus, renegade staff co-developed a curriculum with students in the early 1970s.

“It was home-grown through the combined efforts of dissident staff and students. I remember one day a protest was called which included designing an alternative curriculum,” Stilwell said.

“We [the staff] decided on some basic principles and the students played a very prominent role in designing this pluralist course.”

Students recognised value in the mainstream approach, but wanted to explore new methodologies, considering economics as a body of debate rather than a standardised toolkit devoid of historical, social, and political context.

“It would still have a segment on the neoclassical synthesis, but it would also have segments on Marxist economics, on feminist economics, institutional economics and an array of topics… associated with environmentalism, economic development, socialist alternatives to capitalism and so forth.”

These new Political Economy courses, developed in 1973 and referred to as the ‘Day of Protest’ courses, were exceptionally popular compared to the standard Economics offerings. Survey results from the Student Economics Society and reported in Honi in 1976 show only 2 per cent of Economics students regarded their coursework as “stimulating” while 90 per cent of students rated their Political Economy courses as “very good” or “good”. 81 per cent preferred the Political Economy coursework to the mainstream Economics counterpart. 

The success of Political Economy was facilitated by student-staff solidarity, with students’ demands being met with pedagogical integrity.

“[The staff] knew that a healthy discipline is one that draws from diverse viewpoints and that it’s intrinsically valuable to the progress of knowledge to have this process of intellectual competition… and to avoid political bias,” Stilwell added.

Future FASS has also introduced a new ‘Discipline’ structure to replace its ‘Departments,’ purportedly to streamline research and teaching. Accordingly, the Department of Political Economy became the Discipline of Political Economy.

Historically, the fight for Departmental status by the Political Economists was grassroots, not top-down. Then-professors Colin Simkin and Warren Hogan used their powers as mainstream educators to constantly block Political Economy programs. Initially, the Political Economists wanted to teach their courses under the Economics umbrella, but this was intolerable for Simkin and Hogan. 

The Political Economists pursued a formal split instead, a move which was denied by University management and the Faculty of Economics in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, but finally achieved in 2008. Accordingly, restructuring as a Department was contextually appropriate. The Future FASS restructure is comparatively arbitrary and less focused on academic autonomy.

Chair for the Discipline of Political Economy, Associate Professor Lynne Chester, described to Honi how the Future FASS arrangements are unlikely to improve the Discipline’s teaching efforts because they already respond to student interest and adjust their offerings accordingly. 

“We’ve always kept a close eye on the trends in our enrolments; and the social science enrolments have really dipped in recent years,” Chester said.

“When I first taught ECOP1001 [in 2012], I think I nearly died — there wasn’t a big enough lecture theatre. I’m talking like 650 students, but all the social sciences have seen a fall-off in enrolments pre-COVID.”

The reasons behind the decline are mostly out of the Discipline’s control: social science degrees are regularly denigrated in the public sphere compared to their natural science counterparts, and students may have been drawn to degrees associated with improved job prospects following the Global Financial Crisis. Chester also explained how University stakeholders shape enrolments beyond such broader social factors.

“There’s all sorts of interfaces with prospective students that we are not part of. There might be an Open Day or some sort of information day; that would be the only time we’d really get exposure to prospective students. A lot is dependent on another group of people in the University: the marketers,” she said.

Accordingly, the University must ensure the social sciences are valued in their marketing material. A program built around securing the future of FASS would use University resources to actively encourage students to pursue their interests in these disciplines.

Chester also criticised the emphasis on interdisciplinarity in Future FASS.

“I think that [interdisciplinary] might be becoming an overworked word, like sustainability. What does collaboration actually mean?” she said.

“We’ve been increasingly encouraged to do interdisciplinary research, collaborations and projects, but I don’t think they’re unusual in the history of the last 20 or so years.”

“I guess [Future FASS] is embedded with interesting objectives about interdisciplinarity in collaborations and research activities. Are there actually structures in Future FASS to promote that? Possibly, but they don’t leap out.”

In reality, it seems the real driving force behind the renewed emphasis on interdisciplinarity is the withholding of funding from management and the previous Federal Government for pure social sciences research.

“[Funding] is probably not as rich as it used to be, and I think the competitive process is a lot tougher now. You have to have an interdisciplinary team for a lot of the proposed funding projects.”

Regrettably, Future FASS blatantly disregards the achievements of the hard-fought Political Economy discipline. The changes inadequately support a Discipline already on the margins of the academic mainstream — failing to adequately funnel students into its programs and money into its research will likely instigate its slow death.

Gender Studies and Architecture walk into a strike

While learning the history of Political Economy is a rite of passage for the USyd left, it’s less common to hear of the similarly radical beginnings of Gender and Cultural Studies, or how students and staff in the Architecture faculty decided a curriculum on their own terms. 

Gender and Cultural Studies (GCS) at USyd is a program unlike any other. The academic experience is uniquely grounded in principles of equity, generosity, and open-minded intellectual inquiry. This can be significantly attributed to an underlying history of students and staff collectively demanding academic conditions relevant to their needs. 

The pre-conditions for this began in 1972, when all sub-professional staff and students in the Department of Philosophy were given a vote in departmental meetings, meaning decision-making became entirely democratic.

In 1973, two PhD students, Jean Curthoys and Liz Jacka, took a proposal to the Department that they teach a course to be named ‘The Politics of Sexual Oppression’. The Department voted in favour, as did the Faculty of Arts. But in June that year, the decision was overturned by the Professional Board, who rejected it on the grounds that Curthoys and Jacka, as PhD students, were underqualified. As a contemporary Honi article notes, the University had “appointed several people with comparable qualifications” in the past.

Students were deeply angered by the disruption to the departmental democracy and student autonomy they had fought so hard for. A strike emerged across multiple disciplines demanding that the course be taught. Instead of ceasing classes altogether, the strike was dynamic — students and staff often attended regular classes, but would only discuss matters relating to the demand. An Honi article from June 1973 invites those wanting to get involved to attend a “Women’s Embassy” in the quad, where they could arrange for someone to come and speak at their lecture or tutorial on the matter. The strike attracted 2000 students and staff, and soon became “chameleon-like”, taking on various colours of political discourse.

Eventually, the intervention of Jack Mundey and the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) served as the nail in the coffin. As explained by important figures in Sydney radicalism, Meredith and Verity Burgmann, in their book Green Bans Red Union (2017), Mundey believed the Professional Board’s decision was sexist, and placed a ban on all construction by BLF members at the University. This threatened work on the medical faculty building and a $3 million theatre complex ($30 million in 2022, adjusted to inflation). 

“In these days of social enlightenment and reform, the wiping out of these discriminations should start at the universities. Now we find that discrimination is being promoted at the universities,” Mundey justified.

Soon after the BLF ban began, an agreement was struck with the University. The course, renamed ‘Philopsophical Aspects of Feminist Thought’, was taught, and began what is now GCS.

The strike was an important historical landmark: it addressed the need for a better university in which students and staff had a say, and demanded better treatment of women. This unique interaction between an internal University issue and a broader political one gained traction among the general public: “Unions Call for Women’s Studies,” the Daily Telegraph read. Clearly, the setting of the University was not divorced from wider society.

It was, however, not the first time that students and staff had come together to decide the fate of education on autonomous terms. In 1972, students of the Architecture Faculty held a “pig architecture” strike that pressured the then-Dean to allow a new curriculum, one which  “addressed pressing social and environmental issues.”

Recent Architecture graduate, Seth Dias, described the strike as a “dramatic upheaval within the architectural community.” 

“Students demanded a curriculum that would better equip them with the knowledge to grapple with societal issues,” he said. 

“As a recent student at the school I witnessed traces of the 1972 strikers’ achievements across my degree.”

Dias noted that the “ongoing crises of today are not addressed in a particularly direct manner within the course content… continued cuts over the past few years have reduced the flexibility and choice that the strikers won during their campaign.”

“Students of the school should consider re-deploying the tactics used in 1972 to demand a better education… an education that is able to critically confront the issues of our time,” Dias urged. 

A pivotal feature of both the action in the Architecture Faculty and the Department of Philosophy, is that they presented students with University-based political action which sought to address both internal and external issues. In particular, the 1973 strike provided justification for students to spend time pontificating on such topics outside the classroom, something previously dismissed as a waste of time. 

Since the mid-2000s, on-campus engagement has plummeted. The dwindling number of students who are engaged in extracurricular activities are statistically unlikely to be involved with clubs or societies concerned with political issues. Students’ relationships with campus is a victim of complex circumstances; an overpriced rental market, low welfare rates, and Voluntary Student Unionism — all of which benefit University management, because they just so happen to leave students with less time to dedicate to political organising. 

Throughout 2022, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) has been striking to demand better working conditions from the University. The NTEU’s log of claims targets the exorbitant amounts of unpaid labour performed by casual staff, a lack of Indigenous staff members, and the need for paid gender affirmation leave. 

Discourse among students has taken a different form compared to the 70s. Arguments once had in the Honi letters section are now had over USyd Rants. But the subject matter is not dissimilar. Much of this year’s disagreement has been around a fundamental question: Why should we spend our time trying to make political statements, when we should be focusing on our education? Those against the industrial action will argue that university isn’t for protesting and political discourse, it’s for going to class.

But the question does not address what our discussion needs to. Instead, we must re-frame it using the lessons of the 1973 strike: you don’t have to choose to either pursue your education or engage in broad socio-political issues — they are one and the same. Categorising the two as mutually exclusive only prevents us from improving our education. Universities are most true to their role when they address the needs of their social context. 

Programs like Future FASS, which briefly threatened to hinder the autonomy of GCS through a merger, inadvertently take a leaf from the book of those trying to shut down early feminist philosophy courses. Consequently, it’s the same strategy of student-staff collectivism that will combat it. Change that provides pedagogical benefit is rarely top-down.

In reflecting on this, Dr Grace Sharkey, Postdoctoral Research Associate in GCS, noted “the form of a Department often reflects trends within the associated discipline, and students are often at the forefront of those trends.”

“Like the move from the Department of Women’s Studies to Gender and Cultural Studies in the 1990s… change isn’t necessarily bad, but good change comes from within,” she said.

The foundations of GCS at USyd are inextricably tied to principles of staff and student autonomy and democracy. The impact of this continues in the form of course delivery, and is particularly felt through the commitment of many of its staff members to prioritising student voices.

“Regardless of the restructurings happening around us, we at Gender and Cultural Studies will continue to do the things that make us who we are,” Dr Sharkey emphasised. 

“We will prioritise teaching and learning, even when faced with unsustainable workloads. We will promote academic generosity and maintain our vibrant and welcoming HDR community. Changing our name won’t change those things.”

Pour one out for student-staff solidarity

The tussle between ‘practical’ thinking and programs of more broad cultural benefit will continue both within the University, and as a social theme in Australia. But the language will consistently become more subtle, under the guise of making us ‘Job Ready.’ It’s our responsibility to ensure the discussion we have around proposals like Future FASS adequately address their flaws. 

It’s a further responsibility of students to engage deeply with university staff, not just as pedagogues but as intellects, social beings and people: it is in our interests, because the onus will always be on students and staff collectively to inquire with rigour, and ensure we’re on the right side of history. Management are never going to spell it out for us, and they’re never going to structure change in our interests — that will only come from within.