‘An Irreparable Decision’: Arabic Students Speak Out Against Cuts

Edits by Rachel Chopping
Compiled by David Wark

2020 has been a terrible year in which the Coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic recession have both severely impacted universities across Australia. For many students here at the ANU, it has separated us from communities that enrich our uni experience and make the burdens of these stressful times lighter to bear. The ANU has announced cuts to many of its programs due to the economic impacts of the pandemic, however, some of these cuts have been made arbitrarily and without consultation of the students that study these programs. For us in the Arabic language program, we found out not even a fortnight ago that two of the three lecturers that have put in countless hours facilitating one of the best Arabic programs in Australia were to be cut. 

These are the proposed cuts

The ANU is proposing to cut two (2) of its ONLY three (3) valued lecturers from its already small Arabic Language Program run by the College of Arabic and Islamic Studies (CAIS).  

Their justification is as follows:

“the steady continued decline in student numbers in the Arabic Program coupled with further expected decline as a result of the global pandemic has resulted in the program not being financially viable or sustainable.”

This reasoning is misleading for multiple reasons, as we found in SELT data gathered by ANU:

  • According to the latest enrolment data the university itself produces, enrolments have been increasing over the past 10 years until 2019 – the same year CASS decided to remove the Diploma of Language and restructured many of its degrees to remove the language minor component. 
  • The onset of the coronavirus has reduced enrolment numbers across the university, seeing that international students chose not to enrol, and many domestic students chose to take a gap year instead.
  • These combined scenarios – both outside of a lecturer’s control – has led to two years of reduced enrolments. CASS has chosen to use this small sample size bias as a justification to remove two hard working teaching staff from a program that in 2018 served almost 300 enrolments over 7 courses between 3 lecturers over that year alone.
  • Some courses even saw increases between 2018 and 2019.

The very small number of staff currently in the program are highly valued by students. They are essential if the program is to continue providing excellent education and achieving overall outstanding results. We students have found this cutting process frustrating, saddening and downright cruel. 

In response, several students across the year groups have chosen to speak up and state their opinions on these cuts and what the Arabic program means to them. 

A first-year student found that, 

“Starting a language as difficult as Arabic this year was hard. Morale towards studying online quickly decreased when we went into lockdown. Lucky for me, I’d chosen a minor with the most incredibly close-knit community and supportive teachers who immediately lifted me out of my funk. 

Ultimately, what made Arabic so difficult online was not the demanding grammar and confusing alphabet, but how we had been pulled away from such an enthusiastic and encouraging community that had made us feel so welcome in the first place.

The Arabic department is small, but it has an incredible ability to make you feel like you’re apart of something bigger than four hours a week. Sometimes it’s hard to feel recognised as an individual in a University of 21,000 students, yet our Arabic teachers hit the nail on every one of our bilingual heads.”

 

Another first-year shares this sentiment,

“The transition to online learning due to COVID-19 was so smooth and made me less anxious to study this difficult subject with two lecturers constantly supporting me in both semesters. Alongside the many compulsory classes, the drop-in hours, optional reading and speaking classes made me feel greatly supported throughout what would have been otherwise a difficult transition and year of Arabic.”

 

A third-year student had this to say about the cuts,

“These cuts are nothing short of a direct attack and disregard on and for teachers’ well-being. Brian Schmidt has shown time and time again that he actually has very little regard for the languages that this university provides, nor does he respect the staff that teach it. He holds the actual teaching staff of the university below anybody else, and would rather stick to his vision of “Australia’s Harvard” than focus on providing a quality education.

The public and specific nature of these cuts is humiliating and disrespectful. Furthermore, Rae Frances’ approach in return has been to sow misinformation and sideline student voices, implying that the program would continue like nothing had happened. The students know that it is the Arabic staff that make the Arabic program, and having one permanent staff member to teach the entire major (250 students in total and 9+ courses) is completely unfeasible. If the program does continue with the same content, it would be nothing short of intellectual theft, a plagiarism that we are so often cautioned against. Every time university funding is cut, so too are languages. We know this is intentional. ANU has even resorted to Republican tactics (yes those Republicans) to disentangle students from languages.

To sum it up neatly, I am outraged. The university and Brian Schmidt have ignored outcry from students and staff alike and has chosen to sacrifice jobs over sacrificing the university’s grand plan.”

 

A second-year student shares this outcry,

“All my life I wanted to study Arabic, and when I graduated I knew that ANU was the place to go to fulfil this dream. I moved states for this course and I’ve never regretted it for one minute. The care and commitment of our lecturers is unparalleled across the university, and as a Bachelor of Languages student I can say that the teaching quality is the best I have ever experienced. Leila, France and Huda go above and beyond for every single student, putting in well above the hours expected of them. In my two years studying Arabic I have been lucky enough to have been taught by all three of them, and all of them bring something totally unique but equally fantastic to the course. 

Thanks to them, I have thrived in Arabic and it has become easily my favourite part of my degree. Without having all three of them there, our tight-knit Arabic community will be shattered, and ANU’s stellar reputation as an exceptional provider of this extremely important language will be ruined. The changes proposed by the ANU are completely unjustified, unfair and disproportionate, and cannot go ahead.” 

 

Another third-year student maintains a similar sentiment,

“I love Arabic. The community that it has given me has improved my time at ANU tenfold. It’s for this reason that the proposed cuts not only infuriate me but also truly sadden me. The loss of the Arabic program in its full glory will be a genuine loss and I pity the future students that will be deprived of it. And before an ANU representative corrects me, we all know that some version of the Arabic program will remain. However, the hollowed-out version that ANU offers is of no interest to us. That’s ANU’s fundamental failure in this mess; they don’t understand that there is no Arabic program without Leila, Huda, and France.

What’s worse is that I’m not even surprised. Time and time again Arabic students have fought to get our lecturers the recognition and support they deserve. Yet every time ANU just greets us with dismissal and empty words.”

 

Another second year had this to say about the cuts and the Arabic language community, 

“Originally chosen on a whim, I had no idea that the Arabic program at ANU would come to be the reason why I am still studying. I caught the travel bug just before I started my studies back in 2019 and having enrolled already I channelled a bit of “what the heck” and dove in. And I am beyond grateful that I did. Fast-forward to 2020, one missed gap year and a global pandemic; there were so many reasons for me to take this year off. But I stayed, all thanks to the seductive allure of learning just that little bit more of the new language and culture I have fallen in love with. 

I stayed to remain with the tight-knit family we are at the College. I stayed because for the first time in my learning life, I am committed to this, and I have three incredible lecturers to thank. Leila, France and Huda are for most of us like our second mothers. They remind us to eat, sleep, drink and stay healthy just as much as they remind us to complete our homework. Class no longer felt like a drag as it was in so many other courses, it became something I genuinely looked forward to. Their passion for teaching knows no bounds, to the point that its infectious. I have even thrown my hat in the ring to volunteer with reading classes for first years, as the years above did for us. 

It’s a learning community like no other that they so successfully created in such a short space of time, and with so much potential still. The decision to cut 2 of the only 3 staff that run the program is effectively throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The program cannot continue to exist at its exceptional strength – and I use these words with no exaggeration (a look at some of my more ruthless SELT reviews can attest to this) – if cuts are made to the incredibly talented and diverse teaching staff it currently employs. The ANU administration must choose: excellence, or convenience. The entire community past and present will be watching. I ask that they keep this, and what is truly at stake here in mind as they make this irreparable decision.”

 

As you’ve probably deduced from these opinions, we students love the Arabic program. But most of all, we love the amazing lecturers that make studying this challenging language easier, engaging and most of all, fun. For many of us, the Arabic program is not just a course, it is a community that we love dearly. To cut such a program would be to cut a hole in a community that our lecturers have fought relentlessly and tirelessly to facilitate so we can feel at home away from home.

 

 

 

Think your name would look good in print? Woroni is always open for submissions. Email write@woroni.com.au with a pitch or draft. You can find more info on submitting here.