Australian government position on language closures sparks confusion

Education department asserts right to approve language course closures while insisting that it ‘does not intervene’

February 17, 2021
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Australia’s education department appears at odds with Swinburne University after the Melbourne institution unilaterally scrapped three courses that had been favoured under last year’s Job-ready Graduates (JRG) funding reforms.

The department says that universities need approval before closing courses in areas of priority under the JRG, including languages. In a 4 February letter to Swinburne Japanese lecturer Kaya Oriyama, a senior official said that the department was “working with” Swinburne over its application to close courses in Chinese, Italian and Japanese.

However, Swinburne had already announced the courses’ closure about seven weeks earlier. The positions of Dr Oriyama and three other language academics were made redundant, and students who wanted to continue language studies were advised to do so elsewhere.

The closure proceeded in the face of staff and student protests detailed in a 73-page submission to the university during a two-week consultation period, which ended on 18 December.

It also appears to have contravened a clause in Swinburne’s 2018-20 funding agreement, which required the university to obtain government approval before closing courses in “nationally strategic” Asian languages.

By the time the closure was announced on 23 December, the university had been issued its funding agreement for 2021-23. An early version of the document, which Times Higher Education understands was signed on 15 December, did not include the clause about Asian languages – an oversight corrected in a later version, signed on 13 January, which required commonwealth consent for the closure of courses in any language.

Swinburne said that it had consulted the department in accordance with the requirements under its funding agreement. “We communicated our decision to close certain language programmes to the department in early January,” a spokesman said. “This approach was accepted by the department.”

The episode illustrates the government’s apparent inability to induce universities to maintain courses it considers important, either through funding settings or institutional red tape.

When he launched the JRG package last year, then education minister Dan Tehan emphasised the benefits of bilingualism for graduate employability. The government tried to incentivise language study by almost halving these fees while more than doubling them for most humanities subjects.

Nevertheless, the universities of the Sunshine Coast and Western Sydney have emulated Swinburne by phasing out their Indonesian courses. The subject’s future also remains under a cloud at La Trobe University.

And the supposed protections for priority courses in funding agreements appear meaningless, with the department reluctant to enforce them on “autonomous, self-governing institutions”.

“The government does not intervene in their academic or corporate policies and procedures, including which courses they choose to offer,” the department told Dr Oriyama.

Her colleague Shenshen Cai, a senior lecturer in Chinese, said that the situation was very confusing: “Who has the final say to close our programmes in national priority areas? Swinburne University or the education ministry?”

Dr Cai said that the Chinese and Japanese courses were financially viable and commanded “very high student demand”.

Swinburne acknowledged the language teachers’ unhappiness with the closure but said that it was “committed to ensuring that we focus on our academic and research strengths. The university does not have a strong research profile in languages.”

It said that it was supporting affected students: “Agreements have been made with four universities to facilitate student enrolment for the relevant cross-institutional studies that will contribute towards their Swinburne award.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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