Course and staff cuts – the gutting of La Trobe’s education

On 14 July, La Trobe University announced another set of restructures that will lead to further loss of staff members and the consolidation of departments.

The statement estimates that 230 staff will be displaced after the proposed changes come into effect. Several courses such as Indonesian studies will be ceased along with changes in the School of Molecular Sciences. Student accommodation at the university also sees major adjustments as the partnership with Uni Lodge assumes the responsibility of managing on-campus residences.

The university states that the restructures are influenced by financial challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic and will move the institution further along its strategic plan for the next decade.

All these changes lead back to COVID-19 being the major driving factor to initiating the restructures. Yet, it begs the question why the university is choosing to cut staff and courses when Vice-Chancellor Professor John Dewar still earns more than the Prime Minister in annual salary.

La Trobe Student Union President Jake McGuinness and Education Officer Joel Blanch posted a video bringing these figures into question and motivating students to bring forth a movement against the ongoing cuts. 

“La Trobe is finally the number one University in Australia in one area. Not academic achievement or supporting students, but in staff cuts,” McGuinness says.

“John Dewar has made a big deal about his 25 percent pay cut. But when you look into that, you’ll see he’s also reduced his hours by 21 percent. So, in real terms, he has taken only a 4 percent pay cut.”

This is not the first time staff and students have encountered restructures at the university. For nearly a decade, La Trobe University has had ongoing job and course cuts since 2014.

The restructure has caused greater frustrations among staff after hundreds of jobs were already lost last year and the ending of the National Job Protection Framework (JFP) in June didn’t provide any reassurance for job security.

A spokeswoman on behalf of La Trobe University tells Rabelais that the university plans to open new positions that will help affected staff members.

“There are around 300 new roles proposed which will offer opportunities for any displaced staff after Expressions of Interest,” she says. “Staff made redundant will receive their full entitlements under the University’s collective agreement, which will be calculated as though the Jobs Protection Framework had not been implemented.”

While it may seem promising, several staff have already expressed their frustration with the continuous cuts placing staff in a situation of greater uncertainty.

The La Trobe branch of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) released a statement showing their disapproval of how staff are constantly treated during these changes.

“I am disappointed John Dewar has made this announcement without exhausting all other options. Staff have shown great loyalty and sacrifice over the past year and deserve better,” NTEU La Trobe Branch President Alysia Rex says.

Despite creating new positions as part of the restructure, a staff member from the La Trobe Casual Network tells Rabelais that it could foreshadow a more casualised workforce at the university.

“There’ll be heaps of work, which is the opposite of what we want because that signifies to us that those jobs are because jobs are being lost and not being replaced with permanent contracts,” the staff member says. “So, our fear is that these restructures are just excuses to further casualise our university.”

The staff member explains that the further these cuts go, the issue becomes more collective and will come to affect every individual at the university.

“Trying to get people to understand that your issues as students are our issues as casuals. And our issues as casuals are full timers’ issues because we all work together in this system,” the staff member says.

“Every cut has a bunch of other cuts around it.”

One of the courses that could not avoid being closed is the Indonesian studies program due to a decrease in enrolment rates, according to the spokeswomen from La Trobe University.

“Following consultation with staff in November 2020, La Trobe University proceeded with changes proposed to cease the teaching of Indonesian Studies from 2022.  Market demand and student enrolments in Indonesian have been consistently very low for several years,” she says.

In a statement, La Trobe Student Association (LTSA) Chair Jenna Boyd acknowledges the university restructures and believes it will improve teaching and research.

“The proposed operating model focusses more on LTU strengths … it has been designed to simplify business processes and operations while making a positive difference to students,” Boyd says.

However, the LTSA itself has yet to demonstrate student representation at the university; provided evidence shows that the organisation prioritises their finances for work-related luxuries rather than supporting the La Trobe student community.

The current changes move the university one step closer to following their plans to “focus our course portfolio on areas of proven student demand” regardless of the effects it has on current staff and students.

One organisation has been at the forefront of actively bringing students together against the restructures and prevent further cuts at the university. The La Trobe Students Against Uni Cuts community released a statement strongly opposing the changes as it points the university towards further corporatisation.

“We reject the attacks on courses deemed ‘unprofitable’ … we reject the casualisation practices that have diminished both staff security and students’ experience and the rehiring practices aimed at cutting wages,” the organisation says.

“We stand with staff on our campuses and fight for the education to be prioritised over the university’s bottom line.”

Not only students, but the La Trobe Casuals Network is also aiming to strengthen solidarity with staff and students to focus around deep organising explains the staff member.

“We’re interested in doing organising, which is having those really hard conversations with people who may be really quiet,” the staff member says.

“It’s about really trying to connect with as many people as we can, so that we don’t get so blindsided when these things happen again.”

If you want to get involved, join the La Trobe Students Against Uni Cuts Organisation in their campaign to gather students and staff in solidarity against restructures and improve education at the university.

Image: La Trobe University Bundoora Campus by Nadia Saadatmand is available HERE and used under a creative commons license. The image has not been modified.