A dispatch from Harvard by the Yarra

[Cross-posted at Cliopatria.]

'Harvard by the Yarra' is actually the University of Melbourne, Australia (the Yarra being the major river hereabouts, though the university is not actually anywhere near it). Some wag coined the phrase to describe (and deride) the aspirations implicit in the Melbourne Model, a radical overhaul of undergraduate teaching announced in 2007. Instead of many specialised undergraduate courses, there are now (or soon will be) only six, which will be more general and will serve as feeders for professional postgraduate courses. So whereas students used to be able to enroll in a law or medicine degree straight out of high school, for example, they now must complete an undergraduate degree first. This is more like the US tertiary education system than the British one, which provided the model for the first Australian universities in the 19th century. Hence 'Harvard by the Yarra'.

But there's another similarity to Harvard. Melbourne, like most Australian universities is publicly-funded. However, like Harvard, it is a (relatively, in Australian terms) old and prestigious institution, and so it has also attracted a (again, in Australian terms) large endowment from various benefactors. You might think that this is a good thing to have in a global recession, but apparently not. A slump in the value of the university's investments combined with several other factors (for example, the loss of fees from local students) has lead to a budgetary crisis, and an announcement by the vice-chancellor of a plan to cut 220 full-time equivalent jobs over the next few years, about 3% of the total workforce, to fall on both academics and administrative staff.

This doesn't come at a good time for the Faculty of Arts, which has already been struggling to deal with its own deep budget deficits over the last couple of years. This is partly due to curriculum changes imposed by the Melbourne Model, but also to a shift in the way funds are allocated by the university. There has been much publicity about this in recent months, as Arts tried to reduce salary expenditure by encouraging academic staff to take early retirement or go on long-term leave without pay. It's lost about 65 academics through these measures. The School of Historical Studies, where I completed my PhD studies, has been the focus of much of this attention. What was perhaps the leading history department in Australia is being slowly strangled by the need to do more with less. And with the recent spate of bad news, a recovery in the near future seems unlikely.

Take sessional tutoring, which has long been a chance for PhD and MA students to get some experience in classroom teaching, and to earn some some welcome cash while doing so. It has been proposed that tutors (teaching assistants to North Americans) should no longer be paid to attend lectures in their subject -- but still would be expected to attend them, if it wasn't a subject they had taken as an undergraduate. And lecturers are being asked to justify the hiring of tutors, or in other words are being pressured to do more and more of the tutoring themselves. The result will be that they teach less or research less, both of which are key performance indicators.

Or take historical breadth. When I started out studying history at Melbourne, a decade ago now, it was possible to take subjects on British history which between them covered the 17th through 20th centuries, with further, more specialised subjects at Honours level. None of these subjects are offered any longer; the academics who taught them have retired and have not been replaced. Maybe that's what you'd expect a British historian to say (though I would argue that British history should have some slight relevance for a former British colony). But it's happened in other areas too. Early modern Europe used to be a strength of the department; now there is only one specialist in that field. By my count, there is now only one specialist in Aboriginal history, a very sorry state of affairs indeed. I could go on.

There's a degree to which this sort of change is normal and healthy. But anecdotal evidence (i.e. conversations and rumours) suggests that morale is getting pretty low. And further evidence of this comes from the way in which internal divisions are being exposed in public. For example, a defence of the measures taken by Arts by its current Dean, Mark Considine (a political scientist), was published in The Age last week. It was soon followed by a rebuttal from his predecessor, Stuart Macintyre (an historian). An external report into the School of Historical Studies commissioned by Arts has just recommended cutting its salary budget by a third, on top of all the jobs already lost. The School's head, Joy Damousi, rejected this in an email to staff which has now been leaked to the press. It's not a good look.

I don't have any good ideas about how to fix all this, though I think the root cause is clearly the relentless prioritisation of commercial priorities over academic ones. When cost is the only criterion, quality is going to suffer. History at Melbourne has been suffering for some time; it seems the rest of the university (and the Australian higher education system) is about to have its turn.

Disclaimer: I'm still -- just -- a student at the University of Melbourne, and am employed by it in a professional capacity. This post reflects my opinions alone.

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6 thoughts on “A dispatch from Harvard by the Yarra

  1. Erik Lund

    Smaller history departments would be less of a problem if they weren't all small in the same way. Consider Early Modern Europe, which we all seem to teach with a Renaissance Italian, Reformation Germanist and Enlightenment French. Not only do we get insane gaps in our basic understanding, ie missing the point that the eighteenth century happened in Germany, too, but we reinforce a tendency to a heuristic analysis both by implying the reification of specific heuristics and by leaving gaps of coverage that can only be filled by heuristic thinking.

  2. Yikes.

    Visually, by the way, "Harvard by the Yarra" also invokes the classic example of the Bostonian accent, "Park the Car by Harvard Yard" (or "Pahk the cah by havahd yahd" as they say): I thought for sure that was the play you were making at first before I realized that the Australian accent would almost certainly interfere with the joke.

  3. Erik Lund

    Okay. By that I clearly meant that Simonson's work on the original _Manhunter_ was more awesome than his work on _Thor_.
    Better?

  4. Post author

    I've realised that I didn't even mention the name of the prime mover behind the Melbourne Model, vice-chancellor Glyn Davis.

    Erik:

    I don't get your second comment, unless it's meant for another blog ... Re your first, yes, that could be a problem. But Melbourne's not (yet) a small history department, certainly not by Australian standards -- 33 academic staff members listed on the website (though I know at least one of those is not going to be there for at least three years). That's down from 42 five years ago (though, to be fair, ten years ago it was slightly smaller than it is now, at 31 staff). It's seems it's not so much the raw numbers that's the problem, it's that instead of there being any plan for what specialties are needed, attrition is determining the shape of the department. But that's presumably at least partly a departmental decision, not directly the fault of the Melbourne Model or the global financial crisis.

    Jonathan:

    You're right, it's hard to make Yarra (emphasis on the first syllable) rhyme with Harvard or even Havahd :)

  5. Erik Lund

    My second comment was self-parody of the first, which was an attempt to be succinct, but read (to me) as hopelessly obscure.
    I was inspired, by all things, by Dominique Barthelemy's _The Serf, The Knight and The Historian, an sustained attack on "the feudal revolution of 1000AD." Bathelemey actually uses an idiosyncratic coinage instead of heuristic but makes the useful point that, if you're interested in something medieval other than feudalism, the heuristic of feudalism makes a good jumping off point.
    Clearly, the less history we teach, the more we need simplifying heuristics. The baton-race of history that leads from Feudalism to Renaissance to Reformation to Enlightenment gives a structure to our understanding of history that allows us to talk about whatever else we might be interested in. (Really, if you're doing the history of naval architecture, do you need someone to tell you that it was a "Catholic Reformation," not a "Counter-Reformation?")
    The problem I'm identifying is one in whcih we do have the teachers, but they end up grouped by the heuristic. They may be specialists who understand the local and contingent. Their students may come away with an understanding that history is complicated. But just by grouping them as we do, we risk nevertheless obscuring the point that, say, feudalism is just a heuristic, and not a real thing that happened.

  6. Post author

    Reification, there's another word to throw in. I suppose it's about choosing an appropriate level of abstraction (as always). But how do you get around this problem? More world history (a subject we don't seem to do in Australia) or more self-consciously transnational or transchronological courses? Or does that just run the risk of even more simplifying heuristics to make sense of extra material?

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