Bureaucratic oversight helped seal language courses’ fate

Australian department ‘erroneously’ removed protection for former education minister’s pet courses

February 15, 2021
Many languages pinned to board
Source: iStock

A bungle by Australia’s education department has allowed three university language courses to be summarily scrapped, despite last year’s controversial funding reforms that were supposed to galvanise language study.

In an apparently temporary oversight, the department relinquished a long-standing practice that had helped protect language courses considered financially unattractive to universities because of low demand.

A clause in the department’s three-year funding agreements with individual universities obliged them to obtain Canberra’s approval before closing courses in “nationally strategic” languages such as Arabic, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean and Mandarin. But the clause was deleted from agreements presented to 20 universities in December.

They included Melbourne’s Swinburne University of Technology, where a proposal to jettison programmes in Chinese, Japanese and Italian emerged in December. The courses were “not considered to be strategically aligned to our future”, an internal document explained.

Six months earlier, then education minister Dan Tehan had privileged languages in his Job-ready Graduates (JRG) reform package. Launching the package in June, Mr Tehan said his failure to include language studies in his own degree had almost cost him a job he “loved” in the diplomatic corps.

While the JRG reforms more than doubled the cost of most humanities subjects to A$14,500 (£8,110) a year, fees for languages were almost halved to A$3,700. Mr Tehan said arts students facing hefty loan debts could minimise their liabilities by incorporating subjects that boosted their employability.

He said that if such a choice had been available in his day, “I would have looked at it and said…maybe I should look at doing a language”. But languages are no longer on offer at Swinburne, where instructors have been made redundant and students shepherded elsewhere.

The vice-president of the Asian Studies Association of Australia, UNSW Sydney legal academic Melissa Crouch, said Swinburne had not consulted the government over the course cuts. Professor Crouch said she had been “shocked” to discover that the clause had been removed at a time when language courses were also under threat at La Trobe, Murdoch and Western Sydney universities.

While the government does not appear to have vetoed any university’s proposal to ditch language programmes, she said the clause had “symbolic importance” and may have discouraged other universities from abandoning the field.

The education department insisted that approval requirements for scrapping “strategically important courses” had not changed. “All universities have funding agreements for 2021-23 that include the same clauses that have been used historically,” a spokesperson said.

“Early versions of the agreements, published on the department’s website, erroneously excluded these clauses.”

Later agreements, signed in January by another 20-odd universities, require approval for the closure of courses in JRG priority areas including science, engineering, computing, allied health, education and languages.

Professor Crouch said the new agreements included “a general reference to languages” but no longer referred to “nationally strategic” languages. “This government is not particularly interested in Asian languages,” she said. “It doesn’t see any credit in [being] seen to be leading on this issue.”

Meanwhile, La Trobe has overturned its November proposal to scrap Hindi following “considerable discussion” with government and other stakeholders. It said “compelling reasons” to maintain the programme, including the increasing importance of Hindi for diplomatic and commercial activities, had trumped cost concerns. An announcement on the future of La Trobe’s Indonesian programme is expected in late March.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

There's no evidence that the removal of the clause on course closures from the old version of the 2021-2023 Commonwealth funding agreement was an “oversight”; Swinburne signed the old version without the clause during the consultation period for the change proposal on Dec 15, announced the closure of all languages and staff redundancy on Dec 23 without approval from Minister for Education, and required staff to choose a redundancy option by Jan 12. Then, the University signed the new version with the clause on Jan 13. As a result, Swinburne eventually had to request for the approval and its request is still under consideration. It seems that the timing was too convenient for the University to be dismissed as just a "mistake". Whether intentional or unintentional, the government needs to take responsibility for aiding Swinburne to cut even successful and high demand languages courses such as Japanese and Chinese without its rationale for the closure being verified. Their Japanese program even produced the 1st and the 3rd prize winners in the latest state Japanese language speech contests and the 3rd prize winner at the national final in 2018. According to the Swinburne Acting Pro Vice-Chancellor, Global Engagement, "Growing opportunities for international study and work experiences for Swinburne students is a key part of Swinburne's 2025 strategy to develop our students as Global Citizens", so why languages that greatly contribute to growing such opportunities are not "strategically aligned"? If the clause removal was a mistake, the course closure caused or facilitated by the mistake should also be a mistake. Allowing the closure of national priority courses such as languages will only prove that the government's Job-ready Graduates package is a failure.

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