The managed destruction of Australia’s oldest faculty of Arts

Four months ago, Mark Scott succeeded Michael Spence as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney. Scott’s predecessor was, in many ways, the Samuel Marsden of higher education—the ‘flogging parson’ who whipped the university into greater conformity with the prevailing sociopolitical order. Spence spent a decade at Sydney courting philanthropic donors and imposing chaotic and punitive austerity on teaching and research, the proceeds of which he used to fund grandiose building works and a mushrooming of senior administrative roles. He was rewarded for these achievements by appointment to the top job at University College London, a position he took up earlier this year after fastidiously decorating the Sydney campus with various monuments to himself.

Unlike Spence, Scott has no experience in higher education. He comes to Sydney following stints heading the NSW Department of Education and the ABC: in 2021, being a high-powered bureaucrat is, apparently, the only requirement needed to run a major university. He has never taught undergraduates, conducted research, or published an academic article. Alone among Australian Vice-Chancellors, and even unlike the CEOs of some large organisations, he does not hold a PhD. His appointment marks a further stage in the managerial occupation of higher education, and the progressive abandonment of any recognition of universities as specific institutions with their own distinct values. Untainted by any real understanding of what academics do, Scott is even better qualified than his predecessor to accelerate Sydney’s dissolution in the universal solvent of market rationality.

It’s unsurprising, then, that the first major operation of his Vice-Chancellorship is a frontal attack on Sydney’s oldest and most iconic faculty—Arts, the one that embodies the ‘idea of the university’ as the source of humanistic, non-vocational education intended to broaden students’ minds.

A massive neoliberal fist is now poised to swing into Arts at Sydney. Staff have been told that subjects with fewer than twenty-four enrolled students are to be discontinued. Autonomous departments—many of them the oldest in the country—are to be abolished, breaking even more sharply the bond between the faculty’s organisational structure and its educational and intellectual purposes. Academics in the new structure will be grouped into ‘disciplines’ under the thumb of academic managers. Most incredibly, perhaps, discipline-specific content is to be removed from many Honours programs, which will leave students studying more generic courses instead of receiving specialised education in their chosen field.

If management get their way, hundreds of subjects will disappear from the faculty’s books: according to figures analysed by the student newspaper Honi Soit, at least 252 of 478 undergraduate courses risk being cut, and 251 of 432 postgraduate courses. All these initiatives draw Sydney even further away from the international peer institutions it ludicrously claims to want to emulate. Many colleagues feel that this travesty will not only strip the Sydney BA of its academic credibility, but inevitably put their own jobs at risk.

At the other end of the fist being brandished in the faculty’s face looms a coalition of senior university bureaucrats: the newly-promoted university Provost, Professor Annamarie Jagose, who previously, as Dean of Arts and Social Sciences, masterminded the reforms; the previous temporary Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stephen Garton, another former Dean of Arts; and the faculty’s present interim Dean. So far, Scott has largely kept himself at arm’s length from the plans for the faculty. Now, however, the proposed changes have erupted into a major controversy, and he has a problem: how to decide what to do? Since he has no direct understanding of what academic work is actually like or how it is best organised, he will have to rely on others’ judgement about how the faculty and curriculum should be structured. But whose? The senior bureaucrats’, or the faculty’s academics’, who overwhelmingly oppose the changes? The insulation of upper management from the majority of the university’s staff would make it easy for Scott to ignore them if he wanted to. If he was smart, he wouldn’t want to.

In accordance with the collective agreement governing the university, some weeks ago staff were shown a draft outlining management’s intentions for the faculty and were invited to respond to it. In submission after submission, Arts faculty colleagues warned of the ‘risk(s)’, ‘clear risks’, ‘serious risk,’ ‘increased risks’, ‘very high risk’, ‘very strong risk’, ‘significant risk(s)’, ‘significant unknown risk’, ‘significant strategic risk’ or ‘massive risks’ entailed by different aspects of the plans. These risks concern such central factors as the faculty’s intellectual and academic integrity, its enrolments, its international standing, its navigability to students and community, and its finances, as well as the workload, mental health and morale of its members. These are hardly trivial matters, but the management responses to the feedback brushed them aside. The Provost and the interim Dean thanked academics for their ‘important’ input, and refused point-blank to engage with it.

Management claims that the new arrangements will ‘support’ research—even though the people whose research is supposed to be supported, the faculty’s academics, are telling them that it definitely won’t. Governmentality in the university, it would seem, knows academics better than they know themselves. But if management don’t even trust academics to know what will and won’t support their own work, it’s hard to see why they should trust them to do any other aspect of their jobs properly. This infantilising and contemptuous attitude from management towards highly-trained professionals has aroused greater anger than I have ever seen in the sixteen years I have worked at the university.

Management’s general rationale for the changes to the Arts faculty is that the university’s ‘business model’—a phrase used without any trace of embarrassment—necessitates it. Expenditure is growing faster than income, and the uncertain geopolitical situation means that international fee-income from Chinese students is no longer guaranteed—despite the fact that the proposed changes won’t actually save much money, and despite the university being in a better financial position now than predicted even in its pre-Covid forecasts. It has even just paid a $2000 Covid-bonus to all staff, including some casuals.

The threat to the university’s income, in other words, is potential rather than actual. But if higher education received proper federal funding, it wouldn’t be exposed to the vagaries of the international student market, and the potential of a decline in the number of students from China wouldn’t be so threatening. In these circumstances, Sydney’s leaders should be doing everything in their power to mobilise the university’s significant social capital in a public campaign for reliable government funding. Instead, they have completely surrendered to Morrison and Canberra’s other cretinous and scholasticidal policy-makers. As the NTEU argued in its submission on the changes in the faculty, ‘if the university leadership believes that higher education is facing an ‘historic’ challenge, then nothing less than an historic—public, assertive, determined—response from the university’s management is called for.’ Nothing of the sort is even being contemplated. Like the rest of the sector, the leadership at Sydney has simply forfeited the demand for properly funded, public higher education. And Arts is paying a higher price than any other faculty.


University education in the humanities, arts and social sciences should reflect the diversity of possible ways of being human. Among the courses to be discontinued, according to Honi Soit, are significant numbers (between seven and twenty-nine) from Education and Social Work, Hebrew, Jewish and Biblical Studies, Classics and Ancient History, the Sydney College of the Arts, Chinese Studies, Modern Greek and Byzantine Studies, Arabic Language and Cultures, Philosophy, Germanic Studies, Religion, Sociology, Economics and Italian Studies. All departments, indeed, will have fewer available subjects for students to study after the cuts.

A genuinely liberal—‘free’—education is oriented towards broadening students’ conceptions of the different ways of thinking and living that creatures like us can, together, make our own. Nothing could be further from the intention of the current leadership of Arts at Sydney. Their plans involve an uncritical embrace of contemporary ideological and political settings, and a slavish worship of a spectral and continually shape-shifting financial bottom line. This all entails a wholesale disrespect for and denial of the autonomy of both students and academics—with students to be forced into a narrower, more uniform range of intellectual pathways, and academics to be further excluded from any meaningful say in the organisation of their workplace.

At the same time as the reforms to the Arts faculty are to be undertaken, the university management, under Scott’s leadership, is pursuing a new collective agreement with staff that will marginalise and subalternise academics even further. Scott’s Enterprise Agreement, if he gets it, will remove academics’ right to conduct research as an inherent component of their job, deprive them of any participation in monitoring workload, and force them to negotiate their teaching-research balance with their head of school, annually. Any idea that research—the active pursuit of scholarly knowledge—is an intrinsic part of an academic’s job will be gone forever. Meanwhile, university management is bullishly refusing to make amends for the systematic wage theft it has perpetrated for years against its enormous casualised workforce.

All this amounts to large-scale vandalism of an institution whose value is widely appreciated, except by the people in charge of it.


Instrumentalisation of knowledge by politics runs deep in Australian history: Cook’s very act of appropriation of the continent for the British Crown in 1770 was accomplished under the cover of a scientific mission to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus (observations themselves valued for their utility to marine navigation). Two hundred and fifty years on, university managers are putting the finishing touches to the total annexation of learning by the market. The logic of the globe-trotting careers of university managers means that they will never be held accountable for, let alone have to live with, the long-term consequences of their reforms: they will wreak havoc wherever they are currently based, and then, like Spence, vanish from the institution into some other senior job somewhere else, scot-free.

Humanities academics often talk about the intrinsically critical role of their disciplines, which they envisage as contributing to a smarter, more sensitive, more just world. This self-conception obscures the profoundly ambivalent role of the humanities in the contemporary political order, as I’ve explored in several other places. But if we want people to take claims of the social value of our work seriously, we cannot be indifferent to the institutional arrangements that embody them, and we have to make it a priority not to be complicit in the assisted institutional suicide to which we are regularly asked to contribute.

Academics have, of course, far better things to be doing than organising and polemicising against their own employers, an activity that occupies an inordinate amount of time that would be more satisfyingly spent on creating and disseminating knowledge. But when the structures in which that knowledge can be generated and spread are themselves threatened, we are left with little choice.

Not least among the ironies of the present situation is that the one clear way to improve the ‘performance’ of the university—the goal to which management, including Scott, continually professes its commitment—would be simply to abolish the managers, and let staff and students manage their own affairs, including their relations with Canberra. This would be an infinitely more rational, efficient, collegial and democratic model of institutional governance, thoroughly appropriate to the purpose of an institution of higher learning. The current command-and-control model favoured by university managers is light years away from this, and demeaning and time-wasting for everyone—university staff, students, and the managers themselves.

Nick Riemer is in the English and Linguistics departments at the University of Sydney. These are his own views.

Image: Flickr


Nick Riemer

Nick Riemer works in the English and linguistics departments at the University of Sydney. He is currently president of the Sydney University branch of the National Tertiary Education Union.

More by Nick Riemer ›

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  1. Well said Nick, large-scale vandalism indeed. But we have saved Studies in Religion and Theatre and Performance Studies. We can win this if staff, students and the community, together with strong support and leadership from the NTEU, work together to disrupt management’s agenda. In the process we could go some way to restoring a balance of power more on our side, and even force the federal government to better fund higher ed (something management has never assisted with, they just accept whatever neoliberal logic is foisted upon then).

  2. Yes well said. It’s beyond frightening how higher education is being destroyed in this country with barely a squeak of protest. Incredible that the wider community does not value these institutions with so much to offer in teaching, research and creativity. They are the path to the future but we see how the powerful in this country are mostly actively avoiding planning for the future in any way.

  3. The appropriation of the continent, (Australia), was not ‘accomplished under the cover of a scientific mission to Tahiti’. Cook’s secret orders made no mention of ‘Australia’, with his additional mission covered by his secret orders ending in and around ‘New Zealand’. His direction was then to sail home. He had three options, East via Cape Horn, West via the Cape of Good Hope, or via Batavia/Jakarta ‘Indonesia’ for the opportunity to undertake much needed repairs to his ship. Cook, in consultation with his officers, chose the latter for the safety of his ship and crew. The eastern extent of ‘Australia’ was unknown to Europeans at this time, so he did take the opportunity to ‘find it’ and map it, on his way to Batavia, and did appropriate the coast he sailed along in the name of King, while noting, at the time, that the land was inhabited. Generally irrelevant to the argument in the article, but occasionally facts do matter.

      1. Hmm. Mustn’t let history stand in the way of a good narrative, must we? Especially as history is presumably on the list for rationalisation too, so nobody is likely to notice.

        Seriously, this is cheap wokewashing, and only detracts from the force of the real case. In case anyone had forgotten, it’s 250 years since Captain Cook briefly looked in, and surely that should have given anyone ample time to undo any precedent he might inadvertently have created.

    1. Valid point, Peter, and well made. His inaccurate and unnecessary hyperbole detracts (if only slightly) from Nick’s central argument. The circumstances Nick describes are horrifying enough without his throwing in tangential irrelevancies.

  4. This is an important critical evaluation of what is happening thank you Nick. I wonder who else is doing this work. I understand the Anthropology of Aboriginal Australia has disappeared when the department was developed as the second in Australia back in the 1920s. And there’s hardly an Aboriginal person on campus to defend it. What strikes me as notable, with the advantage of distance is how unstable and precarious USYD is in the scheme of things. It has always been understood that not all universities will survive and given the proclivity to employ unqualified people USYD can hardly retain excellence in this field.

  5. A horrifying prospect that shows just how much universities are being gutted by “business principles” and the search for elusive profits. ‘Among the courses to be discontinued, according to Honi Soit, are significant numbers (between seven and twenty-nine) from Education and Social Work, Hebrew, Jewish and Biblical Studies, Classics and Ancient History, the Sydney College of the Arts, Chinese Studies, Modern Greek and Byzantine Studies, Arabic Language and Cultures, Philosophy, Germanic Studies, Religion, Sociology, Economics and Italian Studies. All departments, indeed, will have fewer available subjects for students to study after the cuts.’ Maybe it’s time to get back to the basics by sacking all administrators and returning to the original idea of the university as a community of students and scholars.

  6. White learning doesn’t have an unblemished leg to stand on post this …

    Instrumentalisation of knowledge by politics runs deep in Australian history: Cook’s very act of appropriation of the continent for the British Crown in 1770 was accomplished under the cover of a scientific mission to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus

    Little wonder Unis today live under the aegis of corrupt and deceitful market forces.

  7. Thought the points and issues as hilighted are specific to Africa and other parts of the Third World ! But we must as academics engage the points and issues with senses of objectivity and responsibility to our profession. The starting point will be to ask: are business principles in agreement with the specific purpose/ objective of the university as a place dedicated to teaching, research and community service ? In other words, are services to humanity covered by business principles ? With every sense of objectivity, the university is peculiarly unique to itself with more of services to mankind. It should therefore be funded adequately and with senses of adaptative creativity and governmental responsibility, all within the changing dynamics.

  8. When working at a Melbourne University several years ago a new advertising campaign was launched, spin being an overwhelmingly popular tool of the ‘new look’ universities. A poster arrived in the internal mail emblazoned with the words, ‘I am a collaborator’. When I pointed out that, in my day, we shot collaborators, the irony appeared completely lost on the advertising gurus. Without the Arts at the centre of University life, our history, languages, literature and philosophy will soon be lost. If subjects and courses are only measured in simple economic unit values then we all stand to lose and our community an society will be significantly degraded.

  9. Dickheads, it’s nothing short of disastrous and I personally fear for Australia. This country does not have a long history of academia it’s a migrant country the overwhelming desire of many is the peasants desire for good homes cars all
    Material benefits. Other countries’ working class desired and revered education at all levels , ‘better yourself’ that’s one aspect another is as has been said the humanising and elevating need for the Arts in all it’s forms. What is Australia without that? – a super large shopping centre and marketing depot. The country is already under achieving in academic research in innovative Arts practise it cannot afford to become even more stupid than it already is. Intelligent creative people have left and are leaving for
    more fertile ground. Goodbye Australia! Hello China. Any vestige of the unique creativity that defines a country as being its own master, is leaving or has left under the ‘business model’ that no one seems to be worried about. You as a country do not deserve a creative, exciting future of innovation and creativity. You ate too dumb to realise it.

  10. I’m sorry but if a subject can only attract 24 (and under) students does its demise really signal the end of humanities as we know them? Perhaps those delivering subjects with so few takers could take a good, hard look at their own levels of enthusiasm and engagement?

    1. Your comment is both wholly ignorant of the way undergraduate programs are designed and gratuitously nasty. ‘Courses’ and ‘subjects’ (i.e. disciplines, fields of study?) are not synonymous. The introductory courses offered by most departments attract large number of students and aim to give students a broad and basic understanding of a subject. The variety of courses proliferates at higher levels as students are given the opportunity to develop more specialised expertise. Assuming that you reject the goal of learning for learning’s sake, it is worth recognising that this specialist knowledge is often extremely important when it comes to filling small but essential roles within the workforce.

      To suggest that small enrolment numbers correlate to poor teaching practices is ridiculous. Student satisfaction is measured every semester, and the very highest praise is usually reserved for small departments. Lecturers and tutors working in smaller departments are overworked, underresourced, and placed under constant pressure to justify their existence; this combination of overwork and precarity is very demoralising. That they continue to deliver high-quality teaching and research is a testament to tremendous patience, resilience, “enthusiasm and engagement”.

  11. For decades, not just “years” the universities have all been dependent on the slave rates of pay for casuals and temps (uni studies have shown they do up to 80% of teaching in some Faculties – and you still get nowhere even if you are a good teacher (students at one uni put me in the top 10% of Faculty teachers – applying for about 50 jobs I was never interviewed!!??), I had started tutoring in 1995 on and off most semesters but finally gave up expecting a “real” job by 2002 (when I was a temp “Lecturer” (Level B) running an entire 1st year course of about 170), lured back for one semester again in 2007 – interesting work, and I like students, but given the way I was exploited and treated like crap I wish I’d never bothered, in effect donating so much of my life to the ideal of “education” that these managers don’t respect at all – THEY get VAST pay packets, perks, staff, etc. Disgusting.

  12. None of this answers the real questions and concerns that this country desperately needs high quality professionals lecturing and teaching with hugely adequate rates of pay. Somehow lecturing and teaching, which as an activity inspires and educates so many
    is rated so low. The priorities are all wrong.
    A business idea rates way up and is financed but innovative academic and artistic ideas are increasingly ignored in favour of ‘money’ making. Britain has hundreds of artists studios as does the US. The US finances for free artists, accomodation meals etc – no pound of flesh required in exchange. Big business funds these – in exchange for tax breaks why can’t Australia care enough to do the same? ‘Culture’ of this nature is low down in priority – few people care.

  13. Nick, your arguments are well-founded, powerful and accurate – but extremely disturbing, reflecting the lack of courage that the increasing number of high salaried university ‘managers’ exhibit in confronting the ignorance, even hatred by Canberra, of universities and their essential role in a quality civil democratic society.
    I worked in universities in the social sciences for over 50 years, the majority at UoS. I have progressively watched as appointed managers, like Spence have systematically gone about destroying the quality of scholarship and teaching and the conditions in which academics work – while of course professing the opposite!
    The most disturbing thing of all, is that those ‘managers’ who once were teacher/researcher/leader colleagues are the very ones who are prepared to be actively complicit in destroying the very departments/faculties and disciplines in which they taught/researched and established their reputations.
    We need to inform to mobilise to action all those students who have gained qualifications in the Faculty of Arts in public and political action against what Scott and his cronies and the political ignorance in Canberra are visiting on the UoS and Australian universities more generally.
    There is an election looming – a perfect opportunity for such action.

  14. As an alumnus is SU years ago I am devastated by the news that my alma mater is being undermined by the slaves of the money anthill. Worse, it seems that the sociological ideology of these times is reigning supreme.
    My PhD was on the good old-fashioned discipline of textual criticism, where you had to know something about language, the surrounding literature. It trained the mind and could have led to the exploration of philosophy, religion etc.
    Venetia Somerset (née Nathan)

  15. I came to this site via crikey to find an alternative to
    theconversation which is all politics and no substance, ( post truth). The point of the article is the corporate management style which all governments use at all levels in this country are destroying our institutions. All institutions right down to local councils.
    A great article.

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