by Katherine Wong and Nadia Hirst
Each year, the UNSW Student Handbook outlines all the courses a student can take. But a Tharunka investigation into the 2022 Handbook has found that over 600 of the 3000 listed courses are not going to be taught next year.
Have you ever found a course you wanted to enrol in, looked up the course code on UNSW Student Handbook, then found it is not offered in any term? This is what UNSW refers to as a ‘rested’ course. Over the last month, Tharunka has investigated over 3000 undergraduate courses in the 2022 Handbook and found more than 600 had no offering terms. Although these rested courses are listed in the Handbook, they’re not taught by any staff member in any term next year.
Often these courses are rested without any clear explanation for potentially years on end.
In our investigation, Tharunka emailed over 80 UNSW staff, including course convenors and Heads of School. We discovered a plethora of reasons for resting a course. Many courses were rested for understandable reasons: a convenor was busy taking a research year, the course’s name or code changed, the program structure was revamped, and more.
However, many courses have been rested due to mass staff redundancies, cost-cutting measures, or the casualisation of UNSW’s academics.
Tharunka also examined rested courses in the 2021 Handbook and found at least 60 were set to return in 2022.
Either way, these details have not been communicated, which has created confusion, misinformation, and frustration among students.
Education Collective member Cherish Kuehlmann says “since the beginning of cutting or ‘resting’ courses, UNSW has been very concerned about their image, unlike other universities where they announce that they will be cutting courses.”
Tharunka has found a variety of reasons behind resting any given course. This piece will go through the reasons one by one. First, it will examine how cost-cutting measures have contributed to rested courses before looking at other causes from lack of available staff to course evolutions, then to more practical reasons such as international travel.
Tharunka has also created an Excel spreadsheet of all rested courses as they appear in the 2022 Handbook (as of September 2021) so that students can stay informed. We have attempted to provide explanations where possible.
Note: many of the academics Tharunka spoke to requested anonymity to minimise the risk of career-related repercussions.
One of the largest affected areas is the Faculty of Arts, Design and Architecture (ADA). Within the History major, seven out of sixteen Level 3 history electives, one in four Ancient History Level 2 courses, three of the nine Asia Level 2 electives, and two of the three America region Level 2 electives have been rested. This has effectively eliminated the possibility for students to learn about North and South America at UNSW.
Former ARTS2303 course convenor Dr. Nicolas Rasmussen identified, “shrinkage of teaching staff in a number of areas such as history and the elimination of the History and Philosophy of Science Major.” He said this was driven by a ‘new BA’ structure introduced by former dean, James Donald, and was the core reason his own course was rested.
Dr. Rasmussen stated that he took a voluntary redundancy and under its terms, will not work at UNSW again.
Despite having not been taught since Rasmussen’s redundancy, ARTS2303 (On Drugs: Industry, Science and Medicine since 1900) is still listed in the 2022 Handbook and was included as a possible elective in the History major Handbook page until 2022.
A similar experience was cited by a casual course convenor who wished to remain anonymous. Due to the arrangement that UNSW has with casual staff, there was no legal means for the convenor to dispute the ‘resting’ of their course, and they were forced to leave with severance pay.
Their course has been rested since 2020, however it is still offered in the 2022 Handbook and was included as a possible elective in the History major Handbook until 2022.
There are similar stories in the School of Biological, Earth, and Environmental Sciences (BEES), part of the Faculty of Science.
Former geosciences course convenor Darren Curnoe told us, “UNSW ‘disestablished’ my position last year after 18 years of working there. I felt the best option before me was to take a voluntary redundancy rather than wait for them to kick me out the door.”
His course, GEOS2021 (Human Origins and Prehistory) has not been offered since 2020 but is still located in the 2022 Handbook with no offering term.
Several other Geoscience courses were ‘rested’ after UNSW cut three teaching positions in 2020.
The School of BEES cut the entire Human Geography stream from the Geography major. Tharunka could not find any clear, publicly available communications from the school saying the Human Geography stream had been cut. The only communication Tharunka found was on the 2019 Timetable website for Human Geography courses, which states, “Warning! This course has been discontinued from 2019 and will no longer be offered in the School of BEES. Please choose another Stage 3 Geography (GEOGG1) Elective.” It does not go into any further detail about the erasure of these courses from the science faculty.
One former academic, who asked to remain anonymous, taught Human Geography for almost two decades. A few years ago, they were required to take voluntary redundancy and their courses were quietly rested.
The academic told Tharunka, “it was made very clear to me that if I did not take the VR [voluntary redundancy], then a forced redundancy process would ensue… I felt that I was being harassed to leave.”
“I’ve been told by higher-ups that it was purely a budgetary thing… There were a few people targeted, but they decided not to target others, just me… I was a certain age, gender, and a social scientist so it was easier… there was no logic. I was seen as a soft target.”
Not only did this affect the academic’s undergraduate course offerings, it also affected the academic progression of their post-graduate students. In the year of their termination, they supervised several students. All of them were unable to complete their degrees as the university could not provide them with alternative supervisors after the academic’s voluntary redundancy. UNSW allegedly said that the justification for offering the academic a voluntary redundancy was Human Geography was no longer required because it was not “considered to fit the BEES model”.
When Tharunka asked the academic what the ‘BEES model’ is, they told us, “there was no BEES model as far as I know.” Their courses had healthy enrolment numbers, received high student evaluation scores, and continued to attract demand from students in 2021. In a survey released at the beginning of August, Tharunka received several comments from students who wanted to take Human Geography courses and were confused by the lack of elective choices within the Geography major.
Every Human Geography course was rested by the end of 2020, yet they all appear without an offering term in the 2021 and 2022 Handbooks. When Tharunka representatives called the Nucleus to clarify whether a course would return, representatives provided vague answers and stated that courses can sometimes return the following year if they continue to be listed in the Handbook.
However, from 2021 onwards, the Handbook shows only a restructured form of the Geography major that is exclusively composed of Physical Geography subjects.
Tharunka reached out to Associate Professor Scott Mooney, Deputy Head of the School of BEES, who claimed that decisions to rest courses are made by executives (such as the Head of School, Director of Teaching, and others) in consultation with the course convenor. The unnamed academic stated that this may be the case with those who maintain their employment with UNSW, but “three other academics from BEES lost their jobs. As far as I know, they weren’t consulted about resting those courses… They were going, so their courses were being cancelled.”
Voluntary redundancies have also exacerbated workloads for current academics. Current UNSW lecturers have been asked to teach courses once taught by those who took voluntary redundancies.
One academic from the Faculty of Arts, Design, and Architecture, who wished to remain anonymous, told Tharunka that they were asked to teach a colleague’s courses on top of their own teaching load after that colleague took a redundancy. This required that they ‘rotate’ their courses, intentionally resting at least one course per year to maintain a high quality of teaching.
“When we’re putting together the list of courses that are going to run each year, staffing availability and workload is the core consideration and no question the voluntary redundancy and workplace change processes have affected how we have term planned this year,” said a lecturer, who wished to remain anonymous.
Lack of available staff
Staffing is the main consideration when choosing whether to rest a course. However, a lack of available staff is not always a result of UNSW’s cost-cutting.
For example, courses within the School of CSE have been rested due to staffing issues involved with CSIRO’s partnership with the university. Two specialised courses on operating systems, COMP9243 (Distributed Systems) and COMP6752 (Modelling Concurrent Systems), arose from the partnership between UNSW and Data61, the data and digital specialist research division of CSIRO. Both courses were taught by researchers as a part of their employment with Data61, which meant they were conjoint professors who were not directly employed or paid by the University.
This year, Data61 decided to pull funding from the Trustworthy Systems arm of research. This meant that up to 70 researchers, including the convenors of the aforementioned courses, were made redundant. As a result, both courses were rested in 2021 and 2022.
When asked why these courses were not taught by full-time academics employed at UNSW, Professor Aaron Quigley, Head of the School of Computer Science and Engineering (CSE), responded, “When we have these opportunities to have external groups like Data61, CSIRO, whoever it is, the safe thing would be not to get them involved in the teaching. But that is a missed opportunity for the students because they have great expertise, a passion for teaching, they’re interested in working with us.”
“We appoint them as conjoint academics connected to us. Yes, they’re employed by somebody else and if their employment ends, then we have a risk associated with that. But when we see those things coming, we then make strategic decisions about what we’re going to do.”
The course convenor of rested course COMP6752, Dr Rob van Glabbeek told us that while researching is his main passion, he would be happy to continue teaching at UNSW if they offered a full-time teaching position, although he doesn’t expect one.
UNSW has since provided funding to the Trustworthy Systems team to support their research until the end of the year. The School of CSE is also in the process of hiring a lecturer in Operating Systems/Distributed Systems, as well as a professor of Critical Digital Infrastructure and have indicated that they are planning to either reinstate or evolve the courses without the CSIRO partnership.
While the reasons behind these rested courses within CSE are perfectly understandable, these communications often fail to reach the student body. One student who commented on COMP9243, a Trustworthy Systems course, falsely believed that it was rested because, “the uni [sic] has cut a WORLD LEADING research group to focus on AI… UNSW AI is only being funded here because it is sexy.”
Across the university, rested courses can also occur when convenors simply choose not to run a course. For example, course convenors often rest their own courses when they are undertaking research.
Dr. Phillip Wadds, senior lecturer in the School of Law, Society, and Criminology and Undergraduate Director for the Bachelor of Criminology and Criminal Justice, told Tharunka , “staff might have particular research commitments one year and so the courses that they would normally teach as their electives are not run. That’s really unfortunate if they are really popular courses…”
The reason that other staff are not always hired or asked to take over these courses when situations like this arise, is that “we try to make sure that the electives are taught by experts in that field.”
Additionally, staff who take research years can return when they choose.
Professor Lisa Ford, course convenor of ARTS2278 (Slavery and Freedom), told us that the class had not run since 2017 because, “I took on the role as DHOS [Deputy Head of School] Education (late 2017), then Associate Dean Research (2019), and now I have a Future Fellowship (2020-). It was my decision as DHOS Ed. The course still exists. I hope to revive the course when I return to a full teaching load.”
Other times, staff simply do not have the capacity to teach a course due to obligations for core courses, or obligations as university administrators. Professor Alex Steel, who is also the Director Teaching Strategy (Office of the Deputy Vice Chancellor Academic), echoed similar sentiments when explaining why LAWS3478 (Development, Law, and Human Rights) had been rested. “It has been offered on an on-and-off basis as I’ve had capacity. I have been unable for a number of reasons in recent years to teach the course – not least of is the fact that COVID has meant a greater and ongoing need to be involved in my Director role.”
“Law has been very understanding of these issues, but remains keen for me to find the time to teach it.”
Course evolutions and Program restructures
Courses can also be rested for logistical reasons.
In the School of Computer Science and Engineering (CSE), many rested courses are a result of course evolutions. For example, COMP1000 (Introduction to World Wide Web, Spreadsheets and Databases) and COMP1400 (Programming for Designers) will not return as their content is now encompassed within a new course: COMP1010 (The Art of Computing). However, both defunct courses were listed in the original version of the 2022 Handbook.
“If there’s stuff in the Handbook that shouldn’t be there, that would look like a rested course… they should’ve been removed from the Handbook and we’ll make sure they are,” said Dr. John Shepherd, Senior Lecturer and Deputy Head of the School of CSE (Education).
During Tharunka’s chat with Dr. John Shepherd and Professor Aaron Quigley, both academics asked for our list of rested COMP courses in order to address these discrepancies. Since then, the 2022 Handbook has been updated and several evolved courses that were once listed as ‘rested’ have been removed including COMP1000, COMP1400, COMP6324, and COMP9433.
Course evolutions occur in every UNSW Faculty. Within the Business School, the Commerce degree has undergone significant restructuring. As a result, many courses including ACCT1501 (Accounting and Financial Management 1A) are no longer offered because they have evolved, and their content is now encompassed in new courses (in this case, COMM1140).
Defunct courses can continue to appear in the Handbook because of bureaucratic or administrative reasons.
“The bureaucratic processes to change things in the Handbook are also a slow process and often does require multiple layers of approval to be able to change what shows in the Handbook.” An anonymous lecturer told Tharunka.
Consequently, courses like BEIL0004 (Design Competition and Bids) continue to appear in Handbooks because they are yet to complete the administrative process of being formally disestablished.
One of the common faculty-wide reasons for resting or not offering courses is low student numbers. Any structural changes made to degree programs or differing levels of interest from students lead to rested courses, with the potential for reinstatement.
In 2020, staff members working within the Faculty of Business were informed that any courses with enrolments lower than 80 students would be rested. According to Dr. Tess Stafford, senior lecturer in the School of Economics, this was primarily for ‘budgetary reasons’.
When we emailed Senior Deputy Dean of the UNSW Business School, Professor Leisa Sargent, she said “As a rule, we do not schedule a course if it has very small numbers because having a critical mass is seen as important for the student experience.”
18 courses were rested in the School of Economics alone, however three are returning in 2022.
Dr. Tess Stafford is also the course convenor of ECON3125 (Economics of Health and Human Capital), one of the rested courses which is to be reinstated. She told us, “my understanding is that the School of Economics wants this course to be offered and will try to offer it again, it was just a bit of a budget crisis last year.”
The Faculty of Medicine and Health also rested a number of courses in the School of Population Health where enrolments were lower than ten students, with seven out of a total of 44 courses being rested. Where course enrolments are low across several years, Professor Gary Velan said, “a decision may be made to not reinstate a course.”
Similar rules also exist in the School of Law, Society, and Criminology.
However, Tharunka found an instance where low course enrolments were used to justify the resting of a course, when records proved otherwise. Students who had enrolled in ARTS2750 (Modern Latin America: Dependency and Development), for classes in Term 2 2020 were emailed in April and told that the course had been cancelled due to low enrolment numbers. However, the 2020 Class Timetable shows an enrolment of 45 out of a possible 60 total students, which is about average when compared to past enrolment numbers for the course.
This miscommunication between staff and students also extends to the course convenors themselves. Several academics (in permanent and sessional roles) told us that we were the first to tell them their course had been rested. For Sessional Academic Dean Utian, the former course convenor of BENV2409 (Immersive Digital Environments), he, “actually found out from students via email after trying unsuccessfully to enrol in the course.”
“Maybe it was taken for granted that decisions had been communicated, but the decision was not filtered down to everyone involved, particularly the person who has taught the course before and was hoping to teach it again,” said Utian.
International travel required
Several courses such as BEES6761 (Expedition New Zealand) or BEIL6007 (International Study Tour) could not continue as they involved international travel or field trips.
The coronavirus pandemic has throttled the ability to travel due to the potential for sudden and extensive lockdowns. Almost all courses that involve travel have been rested for the next year as UNSW attempts to navigate the situation.
Changing rested courses
While courses are rested for a variety of reasons, there seems to be little to no communication between staff and students. Even within the faculties, it appears that it is difficult to obtain explicit information about which courses are rested.
The Deputy Deans of Education for the Law, Engineering, and ADA Faculties all told Tharunka that they did not have a definitive list of rested courses. UNSW’s other faculties did not state whether or not they had a catalogue of rested courses, but did not respond to Tharunka’s requests for a list of rested courses.
SRC President, Tom Kennedy, said “even short explanations like ‘convenor on leave’, ‘course code changed to x’, ‘program structure revamped, content now included in xyz’, would benefit students.”
Professor Maurice Pagnucco, Deputy Dean (Education) at the Faculty of Engineering, said, “sometimes students ask for things that we might not have thought about because it seems so obvious to us – like it should already exist.”
When we asked for his opinion on improving transparency for rested courses, he said, “students are colleagues to some extent, and we are all in this together. [Transparency] doesn’t just help you and the student body, but it also helps us. We don’t want to be in a position where we’re giving students false advertising about what they can and can’t do.”
“I don’t think there’s a simple website to go to get this information, but I think this is something that, over time, we can look at.”
Dr Wadds echoed a similar sentiment, “I certainly take on board that there could be more effective communication with our students about what is being offered, and that’s something we’ve been working on with CrimSoc in particular… If there are courses or topics that students really want to see, then I would encourage students to communicate with your program directors or heads of schools about those concerns to make sure that they’re on the agenda for those term planning decisions.”
Professor Pagnucco, Professor Quigley, and Dr. Wadds have all encouraged students to reach out to course convenors, student representatives (who they all have regular meetings with), student societies, heads of school, and even the deans if they have any concerns about a course. Though it is best to make a judgement on who to contact based on how specific the issue is.
“Academics are often more open-minded and accessible to making changes than you think they might be,” said Professor Pagnucco.
As of 20th September, the SRC has submitted a question on notice to the Academic Board. They are expected to convene and discuss rested courses at their October 19th meeting.
In the meantime, Tharunka has also created an Excel spreadsheet of all rested courses as they appear in the 2022 Handbook (as of September 2021) so that students can stay informed. We have attempted to provide explanations where possible. It is possible that there have been some changes in the Handbook since our investigation, so we would greatly appreciate if you message any discrepancies to our Facebook page or email them to us at email@example.com.