Course cuts may be taste of things to come for Australian sector

Programme closures at Australian Catholic University are more disruptive than previously realised

March 13, 2018
Driving through Australian outback
Source: Alamy

Course cuts at an Australian university in the wake of a freeze on teaching funding have proved more disruptive than previously realised, in a preview of what may await other institutions in the country.

Last month it emerged that the Australian Catholic University had cancelled admissions to at least 30 courses in the days before Christmas, after the government’s announcement that it would freeze university teaching funds at last year’s levels – in effect suspending the demand-driven system that had operated since 2012.

Times Higher Education can now reveal that the impact of the cuts at the multi-campus institution is not limited to new admissions, with some continuing students being affected too.

THE understands that second- and third-year undergraduates have been asked to consider switching degrees, with science students urged to transfer into biomedical science, nutritional science, exercise and sports science and even arts.

Students who want to stick with their original course choices may be obliged to take units at other institutions to complete their degrees, if they can find suitable subjects with vacancies.

The course closures are also likely to result in job cuts as programmes are “taught out” over the next three years.

ACU appears to be the only Australian university to have reacted to the funding freeze with such speed. Many intend to wait until the middle of this year or early next year before making any changes to their admission plans, even if it means accepting unsubsidised students.

The freeze emerged well after enrolments for this year had started, forcing ACU to renege on places it had offered in mainly science and health-related courses. They included a combined nursing and counselling course that had never previously been conducted, developed just months earlier to meet industry demand.

ACU chief operating officer Stephen Weller told The Australian last month that the university had been “actively considering these measures” ahead of the funding freeze, given that the government had flagged possible funding cuts.

He said that courses had been withdrawn “in disciplines and locations where enrolments have been low for some years”.

An ACU spokeswoman told THE that course coordinators were meeting affected students “to discuss options available to continue their studies, some of which include consideration of course transfers”. “Every student who has started will finish their degree and graduate,” said the spokeswoman, who added that no students had been required to enrol in alternative institutions for this semester.

“The university will continue to assess the workforce requirements to teach out the programmes,” the spokeswoman added. “There will be some reduction in jobs as the teaching-out period progresses to a planned timeline over the next three years.”

It is not clear whether last year’s cut will force other universities to resort to similar measures. ACU has been one of Australia’s fastest-growing universities since the former Labor government revealed plans to uncap enrolments in 2009.

Analysts say its rapid growth has left it with so many continuing students that it has little capacity to absorb revenue losses from taking on unsubsidised students.

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