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Speech: The Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies in jeopardy

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 23 Feb 2016

The Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS) is under threat as the University of Sydney threatens to close it due to revenue-raising challenges, despite producing world leading peace journalism and preparing students to make professional-level contributions to peace. The centre should be supported as an important research centre and an important voice. 

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales):

I speak in support of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies-or CPACS, as it is sometimes known-at the University of Sydney. The centre has a distinguished record of teaching and research, maintained over nearly 30 years. As Australia's only university peace centre, it represents a national resource and an important contribution to the intellectual life of the Australian community. CPACS runs a program of postgraduate coursework, preparing students to make professional-level contributions to peace. Many of its graduates get master's degrees. They go on to make successful careers in challenging contexts, including in agencies of the United Nations, non-governmental organisations, official agencies and departments with responsibility for aid and development, and many other settings of vital public interest. I have visited the centre on a number of occasions and know many CPACS students. Their achievements and those of the centre are most impressive.

The centre's research includes a consistent supply of major outputs on peace journalism, a field in which its scholarship is recognised as world leading. Former students and trainees have gone on to set up news organisations or media reform groups in many countries directly affected by conflict, including Indonesia, the Philippines and Lebanon. Unlike too many in our universities, the staff, associates and students at CPACS do not only look inwards. Instead, they share their learning and their insights with the community at large.

The centre is home to several specialist projects which have created resources of expertise that have been presented many times to members of this parliament and to the community via the centre's programs of advocacy and outreach. These include the struggle for human rights in West Papua, the prospects for global nuclear disarmament and how to achieve it, and important perspectives on conflicts affecting the peoples of Sri Lanka, Palestine and Israel. Through the work of its refugee language program, CPACS provides a vital public service, plugging a gap in the official provision for some of the most vulnerable people of our community as they struggle to gain a foothold in Australian society.

Yet, despite this record of success and these commendable contributions to our community, CPACS's future is now in jeopardy. University of Sydney management has threatened to wind up the centre. This threat stems from the financial pressures of working in a university environment that imposes ever-increasing emphasis on revenue-raising activities. For some reason, universities in Australia are much more expensive to run than their counterparts in many other countries. The costs of back office functions, such as management and accountancy, legal services and insurance, have to be met before a dollar is spent on actually teaching students. To this, at the University of Sydney, is now added the cost of an ambitious building program. It means that a so-called 'university tax' is levied, which amounts, on some calculations, to as much as 73 per cent. I note that the university branch of the National Tertiary Education Union has called instead for this university to invest more in its staff, their development and their wellbeing at work. But that debate is for another day.

CPACS is the smallest unit in the university's School of Social and Political Sciences, which is part of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. In the school there are several specialised programs of postgraduate coursework. Students can do a masters in development studies, human rights, international security or political economy. All of these programs do important work, but none of them enjoys the success of CPACS. Every year for the past five years the peace and conflict studies program has consistently outperformed all of these other programs. Every year there are more students studying peace and conflict studies than any of these other specialised degrees. Every year CPACS has more unit of study enrolments-which includes students on other programs who add the centre's units to their degree-than any of the others. Figures just released for this stage of the new academic year show a further increase of as much as 40 per cent in the centre's enrolments compared with 2015.

Why then is CPACS under threat? Across the School of Social and Political Sciences it is possible to subsidise the highly specialised activity of postgraduate coursework with teaching in undergraduate degrees, where student numbers are much higher. However, the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies is alone in not being part of a larger department, so this is not possible for CPACS. The apparent financial losses at CPACS, then, have nothing to do with the intrinsic viability of its program. Instead, they arise purely from where the University of Sydney chooses to put up its bureaucratic barriers and from the ever-increasing corporate costs loaded on to revenue raising activities in the form of the so-called university tax.

Cost-cutting at the centre is well underway. This time last year, it entered the 2015 semester with three full-time members of academic staff. Now there are two. The centre's director, Associate Professor Jake Lynch, is putting forward proposals to reform the way it operates in order to cut costs further without compromising the service to students and the public. I congratulate Professor Lynch on how he is managing CPACS under very difficult external circumstances. I urge Sydney university's vice-chancellor and senior management to accept these proposals and withdraw the threat to wind up the centre.

By any reasonable measure, this centre is highly successful. Some of the centre's supporters will believe that the threat to wind up the centre is based not on reasonable measures but on a hidden political motive to silence CPACS. It is in the nature of the centre's work and its commitment to the values of peace and justice that its messages and perspectives are not always palatable to those in positions of power.

If CPACS closed then it would undermine the principle of intellectual freedom that our universities surely should uphold. The centre should be supported as an important research centre and an important voice. The University of Sydney authorities should be assured that their treatment of CPACS is being closely watched both in this parliament and across Australian communities.


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