Catholic university cuts ‘ability to engage with own heritage’

History, philosophy and religious studies on the chopping block, as ACU flays its strengths

September 15, 2023
Religion, religions, church, mosque
Source: iStock

Australia’s Catholic university has been accused of turning its back on its own heritage in a “draft change management plan” targeting its religious studies, history, philosophy and political science programmes.

Australian Catholic University (ACU) deputy vice-chancellor Abid Khan said the proposal, which includes an unspecified number of redundancies, would benefit staff and students alike by bringing research and teaching activities closer together.

“We are repositioning ourselves to provide greater institutional transparency into the research being conducted, more closely align discipline and financial resources, foster greater interdisciplinarity, and increase accessibility of resources to the entire research community,” Professor Khan said.

Staff said the proposals would decimate revered humanities programmes headed by star overseas researchers. “ACU recently lured many of the world’s best historians, philosophers and social scientists to Melbourne by promising them amazing conditions only to now summarily fire them all three years later,” one tweeted.

“I was headhunted three years ago with a contract to build a four-person team of world-class political science researchers…and now before even completing the hires they’re letting us all go,” said another.

A philosopher said she had given up tenure in North Carolina and moved her family to Australia “on the promise of a permanent research professorship in a growing institute”.

“Who would consider taking up a job at an institution where management launch strategic initiatives only to close them down a few years later?” asked a historian. “Do you really want to move your life to another continent and be left high and dry, without a valid visa…and having to pay for your own move back to your country?”

ACU said that it was consulting on the proposals and that voluntary redundancies would be offered. Staff said many of the cuts were involuntary, with dozens of academics forced to compete for a vastly reduced pool of specialised jobs.

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) said the proposals included the complete closure of ACU’s medieval and early modern research programme and the removal of up to 63 per cent of academic positions in religious studies, philosophy, history and political science.

The union said the equivalent of 32 full-time academic positions would go, on top of 24 professional staff redundancies proposed in August and another 80 academic and professional jobs lost between February and May.

Professor Khan said ACU was “not wavering from its longstanding and substantial commitment to the humanities. However, we also need to manage a sustainable level of staff to students and balance that with our capacity to support internally funded research programmes.”

He said the proposed reductions represented a “small fraction of ACU’s research active staff” and would “bring us closer to sector norms”.

The Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Early Modern Studies said it was “bemusing” that a Catholic university would stop investing in “research of critical importance not only [to its] own mission but its capacity to engage with its own heritage”.

History, political science, philosophy and particularly religion are areas of research strength for ACU. In the most recent research excellence assessment, known as ERA, ACU was one of just 11 universities assessed on its religious research and the only one whose performance in this field was rated above world standard.

The government recently accepted a recommendation to discontinue ERA.

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