Axing gender studies 'setback to rights'

The axing of New Zealand's first gender studies programme could set back the women's rights movement, a feminist is warning.

The ACT party's two women MPs called for the Women's Affairs Ministry to be scrapped last month, shortly before Victoria University decided to can its gender studies course.

But leading feminist Sandra Coney said there were still gains to be made in feminist movements where work was "not complete by any stretch of the imagination".

There had been a general demise of gender studies throughout the country but "obviously women do not have equality and there's certainly potential to continue research".

It was a shame Victoria University was removing courses that catered to a diverse range of people, she said. "You're really undermining ... the concept of what a university is."

She was concerned other university courses would follow suit.

Ms Coney said she was also concerned that the comments of the ACT MPs reflected a broader antipathy to feminism, which was short-sighted when women were consistently on the worse end of employment, income and domestic violence statistics.

"If we have equality it should be all right to be overtly speaking up for women, but I think it's actually a fear and timidity on the part of women to say we don't need these things."

Victoria University Pro Vice-Chancellor Deborah Willis said a review found the programme was "unsustainable in its current form", before the decision was made. Other faculties would offer similar courses instead.

"The university has developed considerable strength in gender studies across a number of faculties and programmes."

The course had 21 students enrolled in 2010, but only seven students and one staff member would be affected in 2011.

The programme began life as women's studies in 1975, and prominent feminist and former Green Party MP Phillida Bunkle was a co-ordinator of the programme in 1990.

Professor Willis said the course had a long and proud history at Victoria.

Victoria University Students Association president Max Hardy said there was a big community of students, alumni and academic staff who wanted the programme retained – the academic board had recommended keeping it several times. It was possible the decision had been made by the university long ago, when the course was first reviewed in 2008, he said.

"They have been squeezing the programme for some time now."

The decision would be announced while students were not on campus, in an effort to "silence the students' voice", he said.

"They instigated it basically during exams."

Because fewer resources had gone into the programme, it had become less attractive for new students.

The university said there had been no long-term plan to scrap the programme.

Students had been given more than a month to consult, Professor Willis said. "No timing is ideal but the consultation document was released prior to the end of [the main academic year]."

The existing students would be able to finish their courses.

Tertiary Education Union president Tom Ryan said what was happening in Wellington – as Massey University considered closing the Wellington campus engineering school and a potential merger of Weltec and Whitireia – reflected the national trend.

"Gender studies is an example of the pressure that's being put on the liberal arts areas [which are] seen as less deserving of support than science and technology."

On The Block

Tertiary Education Union president Tom Ryan says there have been more than 50 major restructurings this year, after the Government put pressure on the sector to make cutbacks.

Liberal arts are suffering, as well as language courses and Maori programmes, he says.

Proposed cuts include:

Up to 50 students at Massey Wellington's engineering school may have to relocate, as a proposal to close the school is considered. Up to 25 staff are facing job losses.

Wellington's Whitireia and Weltec polytechnics are close to a merger, according an internal memo seen by the TEU – despite one of the polytechs' councillors earlier stating no proposal was being considered.

Waikato University is considering a proposal to eliminate 13 academic jobs from its arts and social sciences faculty.

Both Massey University and Canterbury University have begun programmes to centralise administrative work and remove faculty-specific administrative staff. Canterbury University cut 21 positions, while Massey was considering cutting 28 positions.

The Dominion Post