Professor Andrew Walker is an anthropologist who served as Associate Dean (Education), Deputy Dean and Acting Dean of the College of Asia and the Pacific between 2009 and 2014. He is now Professor of Southeast Asian Studies in CAP’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs.

There has been a lot of discussion about the proposed staffing cuts to the School of Culture, History and Language (CHL) in the College of Asia and the Pacific. In a university that claims to be a world leader in Asia-Pacific studies – and in a country whose fate is so closely tied to our regional neighbours – the cuts are bewildering.

ANU has a very proud record of scholarship in the cultures, histories and languages of the Asia-Pacific. CHL boasts many world-class researchers and teachers. Its Asian language program is unmatched in Australia.

So what has gone wrong?

In simple terms, CHL spends more than it earns. There are complex reasons for this, but the basic financial crisis is clear-cut: CHL is accumulating deficits of well over one million dollars per year. Something has to change.

This underlying financial problem has been poorly explained. Many staff and students have asked me how this could have come about, given that CHL had spare money in the bank as recently as 2013. But we all know, from simple household budgeting, that savings will quickly evaporate (and turn into debts) if you spend more than you earn.

Some well-prepared graphs and tables could very quickly put to rest the uncertainty, and conspiracy theories, about CHL’s financial position.

What has produced this mismatch between income and expenditure? There are many reasons, and I will only explore a few.

Before doing so, it is important to recognise that responsibility for this financial problem needs to be shared. Some within CHL are inclined to put all the blame on external forces – the College of Asia and the Pacific, and ANU “management”.

This is plainly wrong.

However, the College and the ANU are not without blame. I, and other members of the past College Executive, should accept some blame for not addressing CHL’s perilous trajectory sooner. The curriculum changes in CHL which I led could have been staged more gradually and implemented more smoothly.

The ANU leadership must also take responsibility for its refusal to address the structural constraints on CHL’s operations. More on that below.

There are three immediate reasons for CHL’s financial difficulties.

First, student numbers have been stagnant, and in some cases declining. Staff in CHL need to take responsibility for this. They have insisted on maintaining a highly fragmented and incoherent Asian studies curriculum, which is very difficult to sell to potential students. Many staff in CHL have made a virtue of very small class numbers, regardless of the financial implications. Up until very recently there has been no concerted attempt from within CHL to revamp and refresh their educational offerings. CHL’s Masters program, the Master of Asia Pacific Studies, could have been made into a nationally prominent flagship but, despite the very hard work of some individuals, CHL has never rallied behind it.

Second, the financial problems that existed when the former Faculty of Asian Studies was merged with parts of the former Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies (to create CHL) were never properly addressed. The parts of the Research School that now sit within CHL largely maintain their former business model: research intensive staff and PhD supervision.

Simple back of the envelope calculations would demonstrate that this model is unsustainable, but many former RSPAS staff have persisted with it nevertheless, assuming that others are willing and able to subsidise them. CHL has received an important subsidy from the central ANU for teaching small enrolment languages; unfortunately, a substantial proportion of this has been used to prop up other parts of the School, rather than cementing the future of CHL’s world-class language program.

Third, some imprudent and costly decisions have been made on staffing, and internal financial management has been weak. During my time on the College executive, CHL lacked internal processes for monitoring financial trends and student load. I was often surprised, and alarmed, that senior players in the school seemed unaware about how money was earnt, and how it was spent. Financial management may not be a preferred activity for those working in the humanities, but this sort of neglect is inexcusable.

These are some of the immediate causes of CHL’s financial difficulties. And, on the basis of the poor financial numbers that have resulted, the temptation is to engage in a knee-jerk series of cuts. That is what seems to be happening.

But what about the bigger picture?

So far, there is no indication that this bigger picture is being taken into consideration. Indeed, I have seen a statement by a senior ANU academic leader that staff in other areas should not be concerned about what is happening precisely because CHL is being considered in isolation.

A central component of the bigger picture is that the ANU leadership has effectively hobbled CHL.

An enormous number of students at the ANU have an interest in the disciplines that CHL teaches: history, anthropology, archaeology, cultural studies, linguistics and languages. But the ANU has decided to arbitrarily divide humanities study between the Asia-Pacific (CHL) and the rest of the world (CASS).

The effect is that students in the largest degree at the ANU (the Bachelor of Arts, which is managed by CASS) have limited access to humanities courses taught by Asia-Pacific experts in CHL.

ANU has turned its international comparative advantage in Asia Pacific studies into a disadvantage, by corralling students with degree rules and institutional boundaries. It has never provided a compelling incentive for staff in CHL to maintain a vibrant and adaptive curriculum.

Of course, there are historic reasons for this division of labour, but it is a dysfunctional division that the ANU leadership has been reluctant to address. A recent working party on CAP-CASS relations (charged, I presume, with documenting common sense) has made some encouraging recommendations but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Based on my previous experience with cross-college negotiations, I am not expecting much of a dessert.

So, the ANU leadership has placed substantial constraints on CHL’s access to humanities students; and then punished CHL for not covering its costs. That doesn’t seem fair to me.

But it gets worse. Recognising that ANU students do want to learn about Asia-Pacific humanities, the ANU is funding scholars to teach them in CASS (while CHL’s courses languish). In CASS’s School of Archaeology and Anthropology, for example, there are more than a dozen staff who work on Asia or the Pacific.

This really is an Alice in Wonderland world. ANU is making cuts to humanities staff in the college that is responsible for Asia and the Pacific, while maintaining a large cohort of staff to work on Asia and the Pacific in another college.

It doesn’t take a Nobel Prize to see that this is crazy. But it may take one to fix it.

I am not arguing that staff should be cut in CASS, rather than CAP. There is a great deal of fine research and teaching on both sides of this arbitrary divide.

What I am arguing is that ANU should examine its humanities effort holistically, and not indulge in a knee-jerk reaction to an entirely predictable budget crisis. It should decide on the areas where it wants to make a world class contribution, and support those areas financially and structurally.

If ANU was really serious about addressing the dysfunctional CASS-CAP competition it would not be proceeding with a downsizing of humanities in CAP without looking at the bigger picture.
CHL’s financial difficulties are real, and they need to be addressed. But it would be a lost opportunity to address them in isolation.

If only ANU could break the shackles of its historically determined boundaries, we could build a vibrant and financially sustainable school that would lead the world in Asia-Pacific and Australian humanities.

It will require vision, courage and some sophisticated financial modelling.

I’m not sure that we’re up to it.

Read a breakdown of the changes in Woroni’s News coverage of the issue here.