Degrading the ANU's Asia expertise would be pure folly

If there's one thing the government, opposition and business are agreed on it is the importance of Asia and the Pacific in Australia's future development.

Central to our engagement is knowledge of the region's cultures and languages, so you would think that the key school at the Australian National University teaching and researching these subjects would be booming.

But not so.  A budget review has found that the school of Culture, History and Language - the major Asian languages teaching school at the university - is running at a loss. 

According to the director of the school, Professor Ken George, a budget review in the first half of 2014 revealed that "operational costs attached to CHL's current structure, activities, and strategic vision had exceeded actual and anticipated revenues". 

Those conditions persist, he says, in a recent statement telling all staff and students that an academic review of the school would help renew its intellectual mission, redraw its institutional design and set plans to ensure its sustainability as a globally visible, world-leading centre for research and teaching.

As part of this review all staff have been ordered to assess their own performance and academics, including professors, are being called in individually and asked to consider early retirement, continuity, redeployment, or redundancy.  


Insiders say morale has plummeted with senior staff getting the impression they are no longer wanted.

The process is also reviving memories of the ANU School of Music debacle when the university cut 23 academic and nine administrative staff in 2012. 

ACT branch of the National Tertiary Education Union president Jack Bowers says the ANU has used the term review in the past as a code word for what the union considers to be the wholesale decimation of schools. Internal accounting had frequently been used as a justification for reviews and that seemed to be the case now. 

Others suggest the shake-up and the morale-destroying one-on-one staff interviews are influenced by financial considerations.

The university has a central voluntary early retirement fund and if senior staff leave early their accumulated entitlements can be paid out of this fund.

This would save the school itself from having to make redundancy payments in the event of a downsizing. In the case of redundancy the school would be required to pay three weeks' salary for each year of service with a minimum payment of five weeks' pay and maximum of 68 weeks. 

Professor Veronica Taylor, the Dean of the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, in which the school resides, says as part of identifying options to strengthen the school, academic staff are "being invited to think about their own professional pathways, and - for senior staff - whether now is a good time to consider early retirement or pre-retirement planning".

"The review is in its early stages and no staff or part of the school have been identified for redundancies," she says.

But many of the staff who have been asked to consider continuity, voluntary early retirement, redeployment, or redundancy see it differently.

One of the dangers is that the most valued staff – those most likely to be wanted by other institutions – will be the first to leave.  

The one-on-one interviews with the discussions of redundancy options are being held before an external review panel begins an examination later this year to determine the precise role, excellence, innovativeness and sustainability of the school.  

Given the way the process is being handled, some staff, in key positions that the university would want to maintain, may well have decided to leave before the panel brings down its recommendations.

The school may well find it's not easy to get replacements and its reputation will suffer accordingly.

There is also the question of who will carry on teaching and supervising PhD candidates if senior academics leave.

The ANU is proud of its high standing in world university rankings, usually either ranking as the highest or second highest Australian university. 

This is in large part due to its international outlook and its performance in Arts and Humanities.

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings, for example, gives the university an overall score of 66.5 but in the five categories of teaching, international outlook, industry outcome, research and citations the highest score it gets is the 91.3 in international outlook. 

Slashing a school which must be making a major contribution to this score hardly seems sensible.

The school also boasts four members holding prestigious Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowships – the highest number of such fellowships in any school at the university.  

Again targeting this school doesn't make sense.

Eight years have gone by since the College of Asia and the Pacific's conceptual launch in 2006 and six since its 2008 strategic review.  

The school of Culture, History and Language within CAP was formally constituted in 2010, making its review seem premature. 

Professor Taylor acknowledges that the typical review cycle in the university is six to seven years.

She says other academic units within her College and across the ANU are scheduled for reviews on this cycle.

In 2012, then opposition leader Tony Abbott drew attention to the fact that Australia was supposed to be adapting to the Asian century but Australians' study of foreign languages, especially Asian languages, was in precipitous decline.

From every perspective - trade deals with China, Japan and South Korea, understanding of threats and conflict in the region, business, tourism, culture, environmental destruction – knowledge of the languages of the region and high level university research is essential.

If the school is indeed running at a loss then perhaps the solution is to find ways to boost revenue rather than cut staff.

Better marketing of what the school has to offer undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral students would be a start.

Scaring those with the foremost knowledge of the Asia Pacific region into leaving the ANU is not the way of the future.