After a wave of student-led protests last year about proposed budget cuts on higher education as well as fee deregulation, it was felt that a legitimate forum to promote dialogue between the ANU and its students was necessary. As a result the ANU, in conjunction with the undergraduate and postgraduate student associations ANUSA and PARSA, hosted “Ed Talks” sessions – small discussion groups held throughout the year that gave students a chance to voice their concerns directly with teaching staff and the Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Young.
One year on, these same bodies are facilitating another set of Ed Talks to reflect on the success of last year’s initiatives, with the inaugural discussion held last week on the 18th March.
Among those in attendance were Professor Young, College of Law lecturer Dr. Ryan Goss (who spearheaded the discussion), and PARSA President Benjamin Niles.
“Ed Talks provides students with an opportunity to talk directly with the Executive of the University” said Niles.
“As we saw last year, the presentation that is given to university does bring real change.”
Although students were invited to express individual trepidations about their ANU experience, the conversation was dominated by a set of talking points, many of which mirrored the concerns brought up by students last year.
Professor Young contended that a further expansion of residential accommodation was becoming increasingly necessary, given that there are currently too many students for the accommodation guarantee. Accommodation issues have recently spurred more general debate about the quality of the residential experience. This was then extended to the off-campus population, who, despite comprising of 70% of students, have even greater barriers to social inclusion and access.
While last year’s Ed Talks focused on the affordability of a university degree in a deregulated environment, this year’s discussion considered the consequences that would flow if university fees were deregulated. This was surprising given that the Senate had voted down the deregulation legislation the previous day.
There was general agreement that more scholarship opportunities, increased transparency in what fees were going towards, student support networks, a better learning experience, and increased technological access, including better Wi-Fi connectivity, would also be demanded.
“ANUSA’s concerns are many and varied outside of the higher education sphere” Jock Webb, ANUSA Education Officer, told Woroni.
“Our support services will continue as they have through our Student Assistance Unit and we continue to consider ways to support students both on- and off-campus”.
Professor Young claimed that current difficulties in delivering these services arose from a lack of resources. After acknowledging that “the university doesn’t always spend its money in the right places”, he said that “[the university] either needs more money or to spend more wisely.”
An interesting point arising from the discussion of deregulation was the cross-subsidization of research fees. As it currently stands, a set portion of undergraduate fees go towards supporting the ANU’s research departments. However, the ANU is provided with $200 million from the Government as part of its research budget, the only university in Australia that is given this type of funding. This scheme is called the National Institutes Grant. This is the first year, however, that the ANU has had to provide any type of financial governance to show how the money is being spent.
The discussion was disrupted by the National Union of Student’s ACT Education Officer Vishnupriya De who accused Professor Young of not caring about students through this lack of transparency and his persistence in pushing deregulation against the wishes of the majority of the student population. After asking him whether he would be attending a large student protest against deregulation of the 25th March, she promptly left. Speaking with Woroni, De was not convinced that Ed Talks were a viable solution to combating student issues, arguing instead that “protesting and mass-mobilisation were the best way to enact change.”
Regardless, although there were many more issues to be discussed, this Ed Talk is only the first of many to come. While last year only saw 10 Ed Talk events in total, there are plans to have more consistent and timely talks across the academic year.
“These are a fantastic opportunity for students to sit down with the VC in a relaxed environment and voice any issues they have encountered at the ANU” says Education Officer Webb.
“This face-to-face interaction removes the burden of an email trail that could last weeks before reaching someone who can actually effect change.”