The neoliberal onslaught on universities has come to a head at the University of New South Wales with the introduction of the trimester model, which splits the academic year into three terms rather than two semesters.
Terms are three weeks shorter than semesters, but in most subjects the same amount of coursework is covered. The university says that it is at the cutting edge of digital technology, which apparently means coursework being taught not by a teacher but by your laptop.
And what of mid-term breaks and stuvac (the study break before exams commence)? They are now only an idea from semesters past. Students are realising that management is not at all concerned with the quality of education, but deeply concerned with only one thing: reaching further into our pockets to line their own.
When you look at the gang of elites that have forced this scheme onto students and staff, you realise this is entirely in character. Together the managers are a band of bureaucrats well trained in distancing themselves from the real impact of their profiteering.
The perfect example is Andrew Walters, vice president of finance and operations. Walters is valued by the university for his experience as the chief financial officer of the mining company DeBeers from 1999 to 2002. You don’t have to dig far below the surface to find the unsettling history of this company and Walters’ role within it.
Survival International, an indigenous rights NGO, reported on the actions of Debswana, a joint venture between DeBeers and the Botswana government, in a report titled “Bushmen aren’t forever”. The company indigenous people from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, which sits above huge diamond deposits.
“This is a gross violation of their human rights and is against international law”, Survival noted in 2006. “Unless they get their lands back, these Bushman tribes are unlikely to survive as peoples.”
The company responded by saying: “Indigenous rights ideology is … based on the same discredited social theorising that justified apartheid”.
For Walters, it seems, UNSW is just the latest profitable venture. Now students and staff are suffering at his hands.
In a recent “consultation”, vice chancellor Ian Jacobs wanted to assure us that student satisfaction will only soar from here, and that university management will continue to “consult” staff and students as they have been for years. The consultation they are referring to is a survey conducted in 2016 to gauge student opinion on trimesters. But the university has refused to release the results.
While students graduate with little more than a rushed, low quality degree, Jacobs is the second highest paid vice chancellor in Australia, receiving $1.22 million dollars last year.
The university is being run like a business, and if management is left unchecked this situation will only get worse. Trimesters are a get rich quick scheme for the university, with students and staff being cogs in a machine churning out profits.
But without staff and students, there is no functioning university. We must unite. UNSW will be forced to listen to us only if we make our voices loud enough.
That’s why students launched a cancel trimesters campaign on 3 June. We’re demanding reduced course and assessment loads, the return of a mid-semester break and fixing special considerations. Trimesters are the root of these problems and we want them gone.
Management assures us that the more we struggle against the new system, the worse it will be. The opposite is true: the more we struggle, the better placed we are to win our demands.
UNSW is the trailblazer of the neoliberal university, not an exception. What happens here will set a precedent for campuses around the country. We need to put a spanner in the works of this degree factory if we want a decent education.
Deputy vice chancellor Merlin Crossley told us it is a “progressive and innovative time at UNSW”. After seeing the outburst of the cancel trimesters campaign, I think he’s right.
But student activism, not university management, is making progress. Through the dedicated work of student activists, we’re reminded that a better university is possible.