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  • Nimah Vaughan

D-Day for Humanities as Confirmed Course Cuts Rock University

Words by Niamh Vaughan (she/her) and Zöe Mills (they/she)

The long-winded process of staff cuts at Victoria University of Wellington finally has an end in sight, with Vice-Chancellor Nic Smith sending an email to all staff and students on 21 September, communicating the university’s final decision for courses set to be cut.

The decision is the result of the financial sustainability process started by the university in May to cover a projected $33 million deficit for 2023, caused by drops in enrollment and bungled financial decisions by past university management.

Six out of the original 17 courses under review are set to be cut completely: Greek, Latin, Italian, Geophysics, Geographic Information Science, and Physical Geography.

Up to 260 jobs were initially proposed for discontinuation, before an additional government tertiary boost package was announced in June, with a total of $128 million funding for all Aotearoa universities—of which VUW is to receive $12 million over two years. With the final decision, the confirmed number of redundancies has dropped to 140.

Seventy-five staff members have already opted for voluntary redundancies. An additional 65 roles are expected to be dissolved through a selection pool process.

Dougal McNeill, former head of the VUW Tertiary Education Union (TEU), said, “It's been a very long and a very difficult year.”

“I think the question of government underfunding has come to a real head and has precipitated this crisis,” McNeill told ^Salient. “When you look at the fact that funding for the universities has not been matching inflation for a number of years, there's a problem here that the government could see coming, and didn't actually act to prevent. So I think the bulk of the blame lies with the Labour Government.”

However, he also points to a “lack of vision” from the university around the courses that have been discontinued—as mostly all of them have been humanities subjects.

During the consultation process, the university accepted feedback from staff and those outside the university. A total of 1290 responses from non-staff were received; 1169 of these were for humanities subjects. This is indicative of the mobilisation of staff, students, and alumni to save individual subjects. Theatre is an example—it was originally slated to be merged with English and Film, and after a large campaign involving social media and submissions, is remaining a standalone subject.

Professor Jeff Tatum, a current Latin lecturer, clarified to ^Salient that although the major in Greek or Latin will be discontinued, VUW students will still be able to learn the two languages as part of a major in Classical Studies through a consortium with Otago University. This means that VUW students will still be able to attend Greek and Language classes, however, the details of this are yet to be confirmed. “Although I don’t consider this ideal, I am gratified that the university concedes the importance of Greek and Latin,” said Tatum.

In the Classics department, one of two senior lecturer positions is to be made redundant by way of a selection pool. “Losing a colleague is ghastly,” Tatum said, “and unjustified, based on the figures which the VC furnished us during this process. But deplorable stuff like this is happening in several programmes. And it’s extremely unfair. Neither [senior lecturers] deserve this.”

“The reality is that the university is in a desperate financial condition, but this is largely the fault of past bad management by senior leadership. And yet it is academic staff who are paying the price,” Tatum stated.

Courses that have managed to escape the chopping block are not completely out of the woods yet. On 25 September, an email was sent to all Theatre staff and students informing them that while the department wasn't going to be merged with English, a significant degree of courses within the discipline were set to be cut or were under review.

“Theatre remains a standalone, critical, and practical programme at Te Herenga Waka,” wrote a university spokesperson. “We will continue to offer our popular undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, including our industry-leading MFA. […] Over the next few days we will be making final decisions about what courses will be available in 2024, and what in 2025.”

Ella, a second-year Theatre student, said that while she was “very happy” to hear that Theatre would remain a standalone degree, the current uncertainty around courses is making the faculty feel “on edge”.

“For a lot of us, it felt that there was no point in even finishing our degree if we weren't doing actual Theatre […] but Senior Lecturer David [O’Connell] took voluntary redundancy. And then there's two more positions potentially being made redundant.”

VUWSA President Jess Ye said that while she was glad about the reduction of courses to be discontinued, it was still “such a great loss” for the university.

Last Tuesday, VUWSA sent an open letter to the Tertiary Education Commission, alongside NZUSA, OUSA, and MUSA, in a scathing criticism of the institution. The letter said the TEC has severely downplayed the impact of cuts and underfunding on the tertiary education sector, claiming that the commission is biassed due to its own hand in creating the crisis.

“The Education Commission hasn't been sufficiently held accountable throughout this whole crisis,” Ye told ^Salient. “I feel like there's a clear conflict of interest that undermines their ability to provide quality independent advice”.

Final decisions on exactly what staff members are lined up for redundancy to be announced by 27 October.


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