Hilmer focuses on ‘quality’ over ‘quantity’

On the 18th of July, Vice Chancellor Fred Hilmer announced that UNSW would be implementing an ATAR cutoff of 80, which will come into effect during the 2014 student intake. Five days later, the University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) announced budgets cuts that will result in 35 staff being made redundant.

Vice Chancellor Hilmer informed staff of the ATAR entry changes in his welcome back message for the second semester. He explained the decision was prompted by the need to counteract growth and focus on enhancing the quality of UNSW alumni.

“We need to ensure that the students that we take are the students of the highest quality. In order to do that in the context of an outlook for lower growth and enrolments, we will from next year be applying an ATAR of 80 to all courses other than those where there is a portfolio,” he said in his video address.

 The mark will not be applied to entry into courses that require a portfolio or audition, and the bonus points systems that are in place to ensure students from all backgrounds have the opportunity to attend UNSW will not be removed.

The only courses that will experience a direct ATAR entry mark rise will be those in the FASS. The subsequent 4.5 million dollar cut to the FASS budget was outlined in a Workplace Change Proposal sent to all faculty members and attributed, in part, to the new ATAR cutoff.

The document stated: “[The major reasons for the proposed changes are] in order to (a) compensate for a shortfall in revenue and (b) prepare the Faculty for the consequences of the University’s decision to introduce a minimum entry ATAR score of 80 from 2014 onwards.”

 The Vice Chancellery has refuted headlines, such as that published in the Sydney Morning Herland on July 19th, which said: UNSW branded ‘elitist’ for setting ATAR benchmark of 80.

“This is not a matter of elitism. It is a matter of the University making a strategic decision on what rate of growth is sustainable if we are to continue to deliver the best possible educational experience for our students — and ensuring that we continue to attract students of the highest calibre and potential,” said a spokesperson from the Vice Chancellor’s office.

Greens Senator Lee Rhianon disagrees, believing mismanagement and poor government policy are to blame.

“This measure is a self-inflicted wound. UNSW has deliberately reduced the number of students who can enrol in the Arts from next year… Not only does this arbitrary number prohibit students from attending UNSW, it will reduce the total number of students studying within the Faculty. University management would have known this when they implemented the policy,” she said in a recent media release.

UNSW’s Dean of FASS, Professor James Donald, disagrees that this was a calculated managerial move by the Chancellery.

“It’s true we do bear the major brunt of it [budget cuts]. [That is] simply because it so happens we have the highest proportion of students coming in with ATARs below 80.”

Dean Donald also stated that the need to control and limit growth is necessary because of a change in student behaviour; the flexibity of FASS programs has resulted in more students completing courses outside the faculty and less students from other programs taking up courses within the faculty.

“That is not anybody getting the sums wrong. [The data] is saying that students are actually behaving differently to the way they have in the past, that’s part of the advantage of the flexibility of the University’s [Arts] programs… we have to adjust to the new reality,” said Dean Donald.

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) has labelled the cuts a ‘knee-jerk’ and ‘savage’ in a document that was circulated in response to the FASS Workplace Change Proposal. The document is highly critical of UNSW’s management at all levels, commenting on UNSW’s $90 billion operating budget surplus, which they believe the Chancellery should have acknowledged.

“Management appears incapable of smoothing out cyclical peaks and troughs through sensible fiscal administration, either at the Faculty or Chancellery level,” Sarah Gregson wrote on the Union’s website.

The Union also emphasises the need for a “vibrant and diverse’ Arts Faculty in order to maintain UNSW’s ‘quality not quantity’ tertiary institution. NTEU fear staff cuts will negatively impact on the learning experience of students.

 “The nightmarish workplace atmosphere created by change processes like this one often pressures staff to fall on their swords, the very staff who have created the success the Faculty currently enjoys,” wrote Sarah Gregson.

An academic who works in FASS has said that the ATAR cutoff and funding cuts were a surprise and employees are concerned for the future of the Faculty.

 “It has created a great sense of uncertainty and concern for security. I think it is very damaging to staff morale… It won’t immediately affect the quality of teaching but if we lose staff because these are redundancies, they can’t be replaced. It’s the quality of teaching that we are most concerned about.”

Dean Donald is confident the student experience will not be negatively impacted by the cutbacks.

“It won’t be hugely different because [there isn’t] going to be a significant increase in student to staff ratios. We have wherever possible appointed continuing full time academics. We actually spend far less on casual staff than any other faculty; in one school it’s as low as 5 per cent of the total… I don’t think it [the staff cuts] will have any impact on the quality of the student experience,” he said.

SRC president Ross Willing is not as convinced, echoing the National Tertiary Union’s concerns over the quality of learning.

“If teachers are worried about their jobs, that’s going to have a clear effect on students,” he said.

Freya King