Why We Should Care

So they’re not even cutting all CASS tutes, right? And the changes that were announced are now subject to review.

So why are CASS students (and staff) still in uproar?

Here are at least a couple of good reasons for your consideration (hint: it’s not really about tutes vs. forums).

First off, changes to CASS have been made in the name of flexible and adaptive teaching, while actually representing steps decidedly away from this ideal. The courses upon which the ‘new model’ is based were run, successfully, by ANU academics within the current system. CASS is not as static and stuck in its ways as the VC appears to presume – rather, at present, academics are given the freedom to decide upon a delivery model best suited to their subject area and teaching style. A move to privilege one model over any other (which is precisely what CASS has stated it will do), especially if done without consultation with staff, will threaten the very creativity and flexibility which has enabled multiple models to date.

Further to this, there’s a real danger that when departments adopt the model, academics’ working hours will be determined based on forum teaching – meaning that the choice to run tutorials instead or as well would necessitate unpaid working hours. If the VC wants to encourage dynamism and multiplicity in CASS education, perhaps he ought to build new teaching spaces such as those science has received in recent years; the flexible learning spaces in Hancock West and the new Building 139 seem much more in keeping with his stated goals than the top-down imposition of a single pedagogical model (plus, the facilities available in CASS to house such a model are limited at best – where will the proposed ‘break-off groups’ form in a Manning Clarke theatre?)

Second, much of the evidence for the proposal has been fabricated (at worst) or embellished (at best). Contrary to claims made in CASS’ release to students, the proposed model has not been piloted, and consequently not assessed for efficacy or applicability within the College. Meanwhile, of two academics cited in support of the model one (John Minns) issued a release to students clarifying that he had never taught such a system nor supported the announced changes, while the other (Ben Wellings) has actively come out against the move and is working with students of the ANU Education Action Group to oppose it.

Third? Staff were not consulted, or even advised of the change. It’s bad enough that undergrads weren’t asked which models they’d prefer, but that the staff who will have to teach the new model found out about it only through secondary sources (for the most part, a Canberra Times article run the day after the announcement) is truly shocking, and threatens to make this not just a pedagogical issue but an industrial one too.

Fourthly (yes, there’s more), the move has been made with a distinct lack of transparency or consistency. Last week, CASS launched a FAQ page about the changes which was posted on Monday, altered on Tuesday, and had disappeared altogether by Wednesday. Why? Probably to avoid keeping contradictory statements in print at the same time. The page contained, for example, explanatory references to “budget constraints”, despite the fact that Ian Young had stated on radio just days before that the financial impact of the forum model had not been investigated.

Lastly – and this is why many remain fearful despite the review announced last week – the changes seem symptomatic of a broader institutional trend toward the devaluing of liberal arts education itself (also apparent in the RSHA restructure proposed last month). The ‘FAQ’ page, while it lasted, spoke of moves “towards more vocationally focused degrees”, and boasted that the new structure would “work well for students who have a very full timetable (particularly Arts/Law students)”. The representation of CASS as some kind of technical training-ground, lesser College of Law, or timetable-filler for otherwise legitimately busy students does not seem in keeping with a university dedicated to excellence in the humanities. Neither, of course, does the choice to keep ‘innovation’ strictly within a pre-determined framework which happens to require fewer paid teaching hours and no new facilities.

The lack of honesty, consultation and logical consistency applied to these changes thus far ought to concern a greater community than just those who’ll be directly affected. CASS is not the first area of the university to experience such cuts to educational quality in the name of ‘innovation’ or ‘vocational focus’, nor will it necessarily be the last. Those who watched the desolation of the Music School last year from a perch of perceived departmental safety may be forced to think again following the developments in CASS this semester. A university prepared to privilege profit-making above student experience and quality of education is not one that can be trusted to stop at its current demands.

And that’s why we’re afraid.