The classics in Australia are under threat. Faced with government cuts to their budgets, universities are rationalising their courses and, with sharply declining numbers of students, the classics are among the first to suffer.
Chairs in classics at the universities of Sydney, Adelaide, Monash and Tasmania have been abolished, left unfilled or will soon become permanently vacant. That situation, coupled with the disappearance of Latin, Greek and other ancient languages from university prospectuses, is seen as part widely of a national downgrading of the classics.
When Melbourne University's dean of arts, Homer Le Grand, decided to reduce the time spent teaching classics in his faculty, the move created an outcry among students, the Australian Society of Classical Studies and classics scholars at universities around the country.
Professor Le Grand had intended initially to restrict the teaching of Latin and ancient Greek by offering beginners and intermediate subjects only in alternate years. He said that staff time freed by the rearrangements in ancient languages would be used to provide additional subjects in archaeology, for which there was good student demand.
But following the protests, Melbourne vice chancellor Alan Gilbert stepped in and ordered the dean not to go ahead with the planned rationalisation.
Professor Gilbert told his academic board the university would not withdraw from the teaching of classics or the main classical languages.
He said he had asked the faculty of arts to postpone implementation of any proposed changes pending "more fully consultative discussions in 1997 and a more integrated approach to this kind of decision-making through the faculty strategic and operational planning process".
The intention was simply to shift academic resources away from low areas of demand to those where student enrolments were increasing.
Although the decision at Melbourne was put on hold for 12 months, Australia is certain to see more of these highly public controversies as universities begin eliminating long-standing but weak departments because of reductions in federal spending on higher education.
The University of New South Wales has already announced plans to shed 26 courses, abolish one faculty and close an entire campus as part of its efforts to meet the budget shortfall.
New South Wales vice chancellors warned last week that the range of course choices facing school-leavers was expected to shrink and that entire subject areas were in danger of disappearing.
After a meeting of the state's university heads, Cliff Blake, vice chancellor of Charles Sturt University, said: "We could find some areas of study totally disappearing from the current range of options available to students, such as languages, classics and geology."
At Melbourne's main rival, Monash University, the entire classics department seems likely to be abolished because of falling enrolments.
The answer, as Professor Le Grand and his colleagues acknowledge, probably lies in collaboration: in this case splitting the teaching of several ancient languages between Melbourne's three big universities where they are offered so as to provide a sufficient pool of students to warrant the staffing allocations.