Students face uncertainty from staff cuts to ANU’s Asian studies
Staff cuts announced last week at the Australian National University’s School of Culture, History and Language (CHL) are jeopardising the university’s position as a national and global leader in Indonesian studies.
Understanding Indonesia, the largest country in Southeast Asia, is important for Australia’s national interest. One of Australia’s major trading partners, Indonesia is home to the secretariat of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It’s also the second-most-popular tourist destination for Australians after New Zealand.
Universities around the country have cut their Indonesian studies programs. Indonesian studies at ANU had appeared unaffected by the national trend until now.
Of the more than ten staff told that they will be ‘transitioned’—made part-time or quarter-time, moved to administrative or other roles, encouraged to retire or ‘transitioned’ to roles outside ANU— almost 70 per cent are experts on the cultures, history and languages of Southeast Asia. Most of them work on Indonesia.
The full extent of the cuts, however, is yet to emerge. Some staff have chosen not to make their status public.
The cuts hit history and linguistics disciplines the hardest. Among those cut are the school’s superstars, such as the Indonesia expert and historian of Southeast Asia, Professor Robert Cribb, well-known for sparking international interest in the 1965 massacres in Indonesia, and co-convenor of the Asian Studies Association of Australia’s 2016 biennial conference.
Other staff cut are also known as international experts in their fields. They have obtained numerous national research grants and have been published in world-class publications.
The university’s recent decision not to get rid of language teachers became a hollow victory for members of the school who protested against proposed cuts to language staff from February to April this year. The planned cuts were passed on to other important academic staff.
Why Southeast Asian studies?
The decisions came after an eighteen-month internal review process. In 2014, the school’s management argued that a review was needed to resolve past financial mismanagement that left the school facing a deficit of more than A$1 million.
The dean of the College of Asia and the Pacific, Veronica Taylor, made the decisions based on recommendations from the deliberative committee. The committee was made up of college and school top-level management as well as several senior staff members from the school, college and elsewhere in the university.
According to the university, the reason for the staff cuts was ‘a reorganisation of staffing to align with institutional priorities’.
It is difficult, however, to see how the recent decisions will help with the deficit outlined by college management in 2014. Two of the school’s and university’s major sources of revenue are student enrolments, including international PhD candidates.
PhD students can now no longer be sure of formal support and future mentorship from supervisors affected by the cuts
With the loss of internationally renowned scholars of Southeast Asia, the new school will find it hard to attract students who choose ANU for its reputation in Indonesian and Southeast Asian studies.
The number of staff cut who were working on Southeast Asia and Indonesia raises the question of whether Southeast Asian studies and Indonesian studies are a priority for the university. The decisions also raise questions regarding institutional accountability.
The review decisions could mean that undergraduate courses on Southeast Asian culture and history will disappear. The cuts also mean the loss of entire supervisory panels for some doctoral candidates, notably those working on Southeast Asia.
This is especially devastating for domestic and international postgraduate students who moved to ANU for the sole reason of working under the school’s experts. Many in the final stages of candidature find themselves rudderless and facing financial hardship. The gruelling internal review process has brought delays in their studies.
PhD students can now no longer be sure of formal support and future mentorship from supervisors affected by the cuts. They could lose support in postdoctoral supervision, access to international and institutional networks, joint grant applications and publications—all essential to obtaining academic careers in an extremely competitive industry.
The loss of supervisors affects international PhD candidates studying under scholarships the hardest. Funding bodies such as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that support international PhD students have made it clear they will not grant scholarship extensions on the grounds of the CHL review.
International students with dependants face further complications. They have to pay costly visa extensions for their family members should they extend their completion time due to the loss of supervisors.
A genuine review?
The school’s eighteen-month review was a costly and controversial undertaking. It included an external review by a panel consisting of national and international academics, who visited the school in August 2015.
Arthur Kleinman, the William Fung Director of Harvard University’s Asia Centre, who was a member of the external committee, wrote in April that he was unable to see a connection between the external committee’s recommendations and the staff cuts proposed at that time.
He questioned whether the review process was only for show, suggesting even that ‘other plans were already in train at the time’.
The final decisions on staff cuts of scholars of Southeast Asian Studies also embarrass the university given that, in July, ANU will host the Asian Studies Association of Australia biennial conference. The conference is expected to attract leading international scholars of Southeast Asia and Indonesia.
The future restructured school will lose its longstanding expertise and teaching on Australia’s closest neighbours in Southeast Asia.
The cuts leave staff and students wondering what the deeper motives behind the cuts were, and what the vision of the future school really entails.
Students at the ANU. The loss of internationally renowned scholars of Southeast Asia will make it harder to attract students who choose ANU for its reputation in Indonesian and Southeast Asian studies.