The Australian Ministry of Education appears to be at odds with Swinburne University after the Melbourne institution unilaterally abolished three degree programs that had benefited from last year’s funding reform for Job-Ready Graduates (JRG).
The department says universities will need approval prior to closing courses in priority areas of the JRG, including languages. In a February 4 letter to Japanese lecturer Kaya Oriyama in Swinburne, a senior official said the department was “working” with Swinburne to request the closure of courses in Chinese, Italian and Japanese.
However, Swinburne had already announced the closure of the courses around seven weeks earlier. The positions of Dr. Oriyama and three other linguists were fired, and students wishing to continue language studies were advised to do so elsewhere.
The shutdown came amid protests from staff and students detailed in a 73-page filing to the university during a two-week consultation period that ended December 18.
It also appears to have violated a clause in Swinburne’s 2018-20 funding agreement that required the university to obtain government approval before completing courses in “nationally strategic” Asian languages.
Until the announcement of the closure on December 23, the university had received the funding agreement for 2021-23. An early version of the document, the Times higher education understands, was signed on December 15th, did not include the Asian languages clause – an oversight that was corrected in a later version, signed on January 13th, which required Commonwealth approval for courses to be closed in each language.
Swinburne said it had consulted the department as required by the funding agreement. “We informed the department in early January of our decision to close certain language programs,” said a spokesman. “This approach was accepted by the department.”
The episode illustrates the government’s apparent inability to get universities to maintain degrees it deems important, whether through financial resources or institutional bureaucracy.
When presenting the JRG package last year, then Education Minister Dan Tehan emphasized the benefits of bilingualism for graduates’ employability. The government tried to incentivize language studies by cutting these fees almost in half, while more than doubling them for most humanities subjects.
Even so, the universities of the Sunshine Coast and Western Sydney have mimicked Swinburne by discontinuing their Indonesian courses. The future of the subject remains under a cloud at La Trobe University as well.
And the supposed safeguards for priority courses in funding agreements seem pointless, as the department is reluctant to enforce them on “autonomous, self-governing institutions”.
“The government does not interfere with their academic or corporate policies and procedures, including the courses they offer,” the department told Dr. Oriyama.
Her colleague Shenshen Cai, a lecturer in Chinese, said the situation was very confusing: “Who has the final say to close our programs in national priority areas? Swinburne University or the Department of Education? “
Dr. Cai said the Chinese and Japanese courses were financially viable and had “very high student demand”.
Swinburne acknowledged that language teachers were dissatisfied with the closure but said they were “obliged to make sure we focus on our academic and scientific strengths. The university does not have a strong research profile in languages. “
She supports affected students: “Agreements have been made with four universities to facilitate the enrollment of students for the relevant inter-institutional studies that will contribute to their Swinburne Prize.”