Gender Studies Gets the Chop at The University of Queensland

Barely a year after celebrating its 40th anniversary, the gender studies major at The University of Queensland (UQ) is to be ‘discontinued’ from this year and ‘taught out’ until 2018 to allow existing students to complete their work. The decision has prompted outrage from academics and students alike, and highlights the worrying implications of higher education funding cuts and their effects on fighting gender inequality and fostering scholarly debate on key social and cultural issues.

It’s a sad irony that this decision comes so soon after UQ celebrated four decades of women’s and gender studies in 2012. Today, 18 staff from a range of schools and fields—including philosophy, political science, literature, anthropology and sociology—teach courses included in the major, while many more are engaged in research related to women and gender. According to UQ’s Associate Professor Carole Ferrier, who helped establish women’s studies at the university alongside academic and activist Merle Thornton, a third of current research higher degree students are working on topics that involve gender studies, women or sexuality.

Despite this robust research culture that’s attracted numerous experts in the field—such as the 2011 visit of Sheila Malvoney-Chevallier and Constance Border, translators of the first ever complete and unabridged English edition of Simone de Beauvoir’s seminal work The Second Sex—UQ claims that gender studies as a single major is no longer a necessary option for its students. In a frankly dubious attempt to justify the move, the university’s Arts Executive Dean has reportedly claimed that cutting the major actually represents the ‘triumph of gender studies’, since it shows that the area is now mainstream enough to be merged with other subjects rather than offered as a sole academic concentration.

This seems laughable in an age where the pay gap between male and female graduates is, incredibly, growing rather than shrinking, and when horrific acts of violence and injustice against women continue to be perpetrated across the globe. In the wake of UQ’s decision, it’s particularly apposite that this year’s International Women’s Day theme is ‘The Gender Agenda: Gaining Momentum’; Women’s rights remain a pressing and topical issue, and denying students the opportunity to deeply engage in related research and discussion does nothing to further the causes of gender equality and robust academic inquiry.

The gender studies major was one of just a ‘handful’ of courses to be axed at UQ’s recent Arts Faculty curriculum review, says Associate Professor Ferrier. Honours in gender studies was cut back in 2005, and UQ is currently (at least for the remainder of 2013) the only institution in Queensland to offer gender studies as a major. After this year, any students seeking to pursue further research in the field will need to go interstate; further, as Associate Professor Ferrier points out, those unable to major in gender studies at an undergraduate level will not be suitably qualified to enrol in specialised gender-related honours or postgraduate qualifications. The long-term implications of this could lead to ‘falling back into the dominant orthodoxies that seem to be gaining all around us’, says Associate Professor Ferrier; it also risks failing to attract a greater diversity of students at undergraduate level.

UQ’s decision represents yet another example of the continued higher education funding cuts that threaten the integrity of Australia’s research sector, particularly its Arts-related disciplines. Slashed funding inevitably means that teaching and research quality decline—in 2011, UQ’s administration was accused of ‘raking off’ money meant for teaching; inevitably, the areas affected included languages, English and gender studies.

This isn’t simply a higher education issue, but a much broader social and cultural one. Failing to give gender studies the time and attention it deserves in the classroom and lecture hall both stifles intellectual curiosity and scholarly endeavours and fails to help redress society’s continued gender power imbalance. As Triona Kennedy, founder of The Astell Project for Women & Gender Studies, observed in The Guardian last year, British institutions ‘from Parliament to the BBC’ continue to be dominated by men; the situation isn’t much different in Australia, where sexism in politics and the mainstream media is disturbingly rife.

There’s no quick or simple solution to this problem, but the first step, says Kennedy, is education: educating the young, and ‘educating the educators’. Gender studies doesn’t just deserve a place in academic, it requires one—without it, we risk the continued and unchecked perpetuation of gender discrimination across the globe.


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