“NO CUTS TO ARTS”: Student activist, Berna Erkan, explains student concerns about the university’s budgeting skills

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Words | Saliha Rehanaz

In an institution built for teaching and learning, Macquarie is transitioning into a place where face-to-face education might no longer exist. Taking away in person lectures, and encouraging students to enrol in online classes, it can make you wonder what our tuition fees are going towards.

Berna Erkan, a member of the Macquarie Students Against the Cuts campaign, spoke to Grapeshot to help us understand how students and staff are being impacted by the budget cuts, and what is actually happening. She dives into the difficulties students have been facing, and how the Macquarie community can play a role to reverse these changes. 

What are the budget cuts taking place in Macquarie and how are they impacting the students and staff of Macquarie?

“Following the dissolution of the Faculty of Human Sciences last year, which saw dozens of staff face down the barrel of redundancies, students in their first year of their Bachelor of Arts degree were welcomed into the new year with two essential units in the course introduced with unprecedented cuts to face-to-face learning.”

“PHIL1037, a course about critical thinking has zero on-campus tutorials. The unit has forced students to do online tutorials, slashing the option of face-to-face learning. This is a huge attack on the right of students to the precious learning that is facilitated by tutors and fellow students in the real-world. It undermines the learning of students that should be priority for universities everywhere but are simply forsaken in the degree factory that is the university. These cuts similarly undermine staff dealing with increased workloads. In the case of PHIL1037, it means tutors are taking on a hundred students that they’ve never met in person. With a cohort of 2,000 students, activists in our campaign were shocked to find students sitting on the ground in the back of the lecture theatre and in aisles in PHIL1037 because there weren’t enough seats for students who were there to attend. Cramming students into lecture theatres and slashing face-to-face learning exposes the real priorities of Macquarie University, which is to run a very profitable business, at the expense of education.” 

“ARTS1000, a new core unit similarly offers no on-campus tutorials, but instead gives students the option of “lectorials”. The lectorial replaces small class tutorials for huge class sizes, cramming potentially hundreds of students into a single “lectorial”. Students were similarly found to be sitting in aisles and on the floor in these big lectorials, some walking out all together because there just wasn’t enough room for everyone who was crammed in. These cuts clearly undermine student learning and place huge pressures on staff taking on larger class sizes. Even while cramming as many students as possible into these lectorials, some were told to either drop out of the unit or register into online mode because there wasn’t enough space in their lecture theatres. However, students have argued that had this been the case a couple of years ago, more classes would have been made available for students with more staff hired to take on these classes. These restructures are an immense attack on student learning and staff working conditions.”

“In addition to these key restructures, there is a more general normalisation of cuts to units offered in Arts. Macquarie University already has one of the lowest staff to student ratios. Huge seminars, staff precarity, and the cutting of units have left many students and staff agonising over the ways education is being undermined at Macquarie University.”

Why are students and staff protesting against the budget cuts and what do they hope to achieve? 

“We called a protest to defend our education and to demand quality education for students in the Arts Faculty. We also want to stand with our staff who are facing down the barrel of precarious working conditions and casualisation, dealing with huge pressures placed on them because of increasing class sizes.”

“We demand an immediate reversal of the cuts to face-to-face learning in PHIL1037 and ARTS1000. We demand small on-campus tutorials in these units because they are crucial for the kind of quality learning that needs to happen at university.”

“In the long run, we have a project of challenging neoliberalism in our universities. The idea that the university’s profitability and the bloated salaries of the Vice-Chancellor and the Executive come before students and staff needs to be confronted. Macquarie University is a billion-dollar corporate enterprise. Our Vice-Chancellor, Bruce Dowton is a millionaire, and yet students are sitting on the floor at the back of lecture theatres, doing their units online and having their right to face-to-face learning slashed. One might wonder where education fits into all of this.” 

What is the Snap Rally?

“Students came out in their dozens to march to the Chancellery on Wednesday the 4th of March. The rally was called to save our classes and to reverse the cuts to the Arts Faculty. Before having speeches from staff and students affected by the cuts in front of the MUSE building, we occupied the foyer of the Chancellery. Chanting and raising our voices, we took an important stand against management in the building who expects that students will just be passive consumers and accept cuts to their learning.”

What do the Macquarie Students Against the Cuts intend to do in the future until the university administration listens to their demands? 

“We intend to oppose all cuts put forward by the University. Our campaign is intent on creating a culture on campus that argues that when students and staff get a raw deal, you come out and challenge the corporate university. There’s a lot of anger and concern boiling under the surface on campus from staff and students, but that needs to be channelled into something concrete like rallies that have the power to mobilise people and rattle university management. We have a responsibility as students to disrupt the business-as-usual of budget cuts and profit-margins, because these are diametrically opposed to providing students with a quality education.”

What can students or staff, who are not directly impacted by the cuts, do to help with this issue? 

“Get involved! Follow our page Macquarie Students Against the Cuts on Facebook. Our campaign wants to make an argument that staff and students should feel confident to stand up to management at this University. Last year activists from our campaign group organised a demonstration of 500 students and staff against the cutting of the Faculty of Human Sciences – the biggest demonstration at Macquarie for close to a decade.”

“Students across the campus are facing a very unprecedented situation of huge debt, higher fees, poorer living conditions and worsening quality of education – something generations before us only had a glimpse of. Staff are facing huge casualisation, potential redundancies, restructures, and overwork geared to undermine them as the University churns in millions every year. We want to draw from Macquarie’s radical history of student activism and protest as a guide to how we can fight back for our education today and beat back the corporate interests of Macquarie University.”

In Grapeshot’s last interview, Bruce Dowton, the Vice Chancellor, mentions that ‘there is no you, without us’. The statement is a clear indication that the university’s existence depends on its students. So if we’re not content with the education we are receiving, we must speak up.

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