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July 7, 2008 | by  | in Features |
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The Fight For Gender & Women’s Studies

The casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that the administration at Victoria holds increasingly scant concern for the well-being of its students, not to mention the future of its academic integrity. A recent proposal to make serious cuts in the College of Education has gone ahead. The administration plans to cut out more than 15 per cent of existing staff numbers, a reduction of 22 out of 141 academic positions and seven out of 41 general positions, and to close the college’s resource centre. These changes will be made by the end of the year, much to the surprise and anger of the college’s staff and students, many of whom made submissions in opposition to the changes.

“We are not sure how 204 submissions can fail to have any impact on the number of proposed job losses when that number was certainly the result of some arbitrary assumptions,” Association of University Staff organiser Michael Gilchrist said. “This outcome heightens our overall concerns about the university’s change processes. We believe that there should have been broader input on the decision panel.”

These decisions strongly reek of deja-vu. As avid readers of Salient will know, a proposal to make similarly jarring changes to the film department earlier this year was strongly opposed by both students and staff. The olfactory presence of that sneaky manoeuvre still clings to the pressed suits of the higher-ups in the Victoria administration. Suspicion, then, is hard to shake off. The stated aim of the changes is ostensibly to bring the college into line with the new government funding model that shifts the emphasis away from teaching (hence the loss of the resource centre) and closer to research. The latter is a worthy aim. But given the current dearth of quality teacher education in the country, this seems to be something of a short-sighted decision.

As Michael Gilchrist points out: “While the university continues to balance its books with such enthusiasm, the pressures on high-quality teacher education caused by funding reductions will not be felt by the government.”

The 204 submissions from staff and students, which largely opposed the cuts, were ignored, and there has been no adjustment to the original proposal. Again, the resemblance to the film school proposal is strongly felt – the objectivity and impartiality of the process has been highly disputed, in particular by the AUS. The association has thus far encountered an absolute refusal from the University to make this process more open and transparent.

As part of this sweeping scythe to the college, the future of the Gender and Women’s Studies (GWS) was also called into question. Few students outside of the school would know that, oddly, it forms part of the Education college, as opposed a more logical home in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences (FHSS), where it resides at other universities in the country. This is mostly on account of the research interests of educationalist Kay Morris Matthews, the head of school until recently. It was therefore an “unfortunate accident” that the school was affected by the proposed changes to the College of Education, according to Jim Collinge of the Gender and Women’s Studies board. If the decisions had gone ahead, the department would have been moved to Karori; its teaching and administrative staff reduced; its honours classes required to have a minimum of 16 students to go ahead and its staff required to also teach in education, regardless of their actual disciplinary affiliations.

The programme has received a temporary reprieve, which GWS lecturer Lesley Hall considers a “stay of execution”. The resolution to disallow the changes was moved and seconded by Professors Janet Holmes of the linguistics programme and Lydia Wevers of the Stout Research Centre for New Zealand Studies. It emphasises the continuing importance of a stand-alone programme in which feminist perspectives take a leading role. The fact that the school was put under such threat is itself a continuing concern for many students and staff. Collinge emphasises the irrationality of such a position – “There is a 100% of GWS teaching in the FHSS … it does seem very odd that it still located in Karori, even if it is solely for administrative purposes.” Although Mathews’ presence gave this pairing some logic, the threat that GWS was put under drew attention to the disjuncture between the school’s position here, and its logical home. The academic furore over any move to slim down the GWS offerings showed that the school’s contribution is still highly valued, however a move to the Faculty of Humanites and Social Sciences was never considered as a viable option.

Collinge believes this is due to some inexplicable opposition within the Faculty itself. “It seems as if the FHSS don’t want them back as I understand – they think that FHSS can’t afford it for financial reasons, even though it would be highly appropriate. What really annoyed me is that the outcome report clearly states that moving GWS to anywhere else in the FHSS is simply ‘not an option’ – I find that very strange, it’s where the solution lies.” Collinge believes Gender and Womens Studies is at least as viable as many other subjects within the Faculty, and that the two fulltime staff are both “excellent researchers . . it goes without saying.”

Gender Studies student Eleanor Bishop thinks the Faculty’s refusal to take on the department is “shocking”. “This is a win for gender studies but we are definitely not out of the woods yet and there is much to be done to secure the future of the programme.” Lecturer Lesley Hall believes the department is a “flagship for equity – much like the Maori and Pacific Studies department.” She points to a 2002 review which assured the GWS department that they would not have to teach outside of their discipline, no matter where they were located.

The most bizarre aspect of the proposal as pertaining to the gender programme was the requirement that all taught postrgraduate classes have a minimum of 16 students. Collinge finds this “very strange … if that was the case across the board, there would be no honours classes, anywhere – for example it is simply unheard of for there to be 16 or more students in a Maths honours class”. He believes the question needs to be asked – if they go ahead with this 16-student prerequisite in Education and GWS, will it also be applied to other subjects? Dean of Education Dugald Scott, via email, replied: “When making this decision the panel noted that introducing an enrolment cut-off for Gender and Women’s Studies will need to be managed carefully to ensure students are able to undertake an appropriate range of courses and will still be able to complete Honours and PhD programmes.” The plague of management speak continues.

These changes have been taken off the 2008 agenda – there is no confirmation that they will not be revalued come 2009. If the future of the GWS department is put under threat, so will nearly every FHSS course that has a strong gender component, for these courses exist only whilst there are those with the relevant background to teach them.

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