Jobs must be cut now to secure division's future

The Arts Building at the University of Otago. Five departments in the humanities division are facing staff cuts because of declining student numbers. Photo by Gerard O'Brien.
The Arts Building at the University of Otago. Five departments in the humanities division are facing staff cuts because of declining student numbers. Photo by Gerard O'Brien.
Students’ changing preferences have forced a  difficult task on the University of Otago, writes Prof Tony Ballantyne.

The proposed changes in staffing in the Humanities Division at the University of Otago have been subject to sustained media comment and critical commentary.

The high level of interest in these changes reflects the importance of the university in our city and how much people value the division's strengths in teaching and research.

I am keenly aware of how important the division's work is. I grew up in a large family in Caversham and my parents, who had little formal schooling themselves, had a deep appreciation of the importance of a university education.

My time as an undergraduate in the Humanities Division at Otago changed my life. Because of that experience, I was able to win a scholarship to Cambridge and it helped me become a professional historian.

After many years working overseas I returned to Dunedin, the university and the division in order to make a contribution to the humanities at Otago, a community of learning that laid the foundation for my career and which I now have the honour to lead.

The reason for the proposed changes is quite simple: there has unfortunately been a sustained decline in student numbers over the past seven years.

Because of this, there is a growing gap between the division's cost and income and it now depends on subsidies of many millions of dollars each year from other parts of the university.

In the face of this, we have to change, we need to adapt to the shifting conditions we operate in. As the division's academic leader, I know we have to reduce our costs and that sadly means some jobs will be lost.

But we are approaching this very difficult task with all due thought and care. We will be working hard to protect our areas of strength and will continue to offer excellent programmes for our students, current and future.

As I have assured the OUSA, all students enrolled will be able to complete their programmes and, in fact, the vast majority of students in the division will not be impacted by these changes.

Some people have suggested the cultural value of humanities is such that they should not be subject to economic scrutiny and they should be exempt from change.

While I am a strong advocate for the vital importance of the humanities, we must all remember that the division is part of the wider university and is strongly supported by the university community as whole.

It is not useful to pit the humanities against the other divisions or the university as a whole. What we need to be championing is a broad appreciation of the importance of tertiary education and recognition of the richness of all of the disciplines that make the university such a vibrant intellectual centre.

We need to build connections between the different parts of the university rather than pitting them against each other.

Universities, like all institutions, are subject to economic pressures. They have to adjust with the times and it would be irresponsible not to face our challenges head on.

To ignore the situation or to imagine that change could be indefinitely postponed would not serve the interests of our students, staff or the wider community.

Avoiding the need to adapt now simply means that future changes would have to be deeper and more radical. The processes that we are working through are stressful and unsettling for our staff, but they are necessary if we are to secure the division's ability to remain a centre for world-leading research and teaching of the highest calibre.

We need to change because our staff's work as researchers and teachers is vitally important. We must ensure we are in the strongest possible position to continue to produce generation after generation of outstanding graduates.

-Prof Tony Ballantyne is pro-vice-chancellor, humanities, University of Otago.

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