Conspiracy Corner – Not Offered in 2014

Every Thursday, about 8:15am, Matthew talks with Zac, with Lucas lurking on the sidelines, on 95bFM’s “Breakfast Show” about conspiracy theories.

I try my best to be sympathetic to the conspiracy theories I hear, because, really, to treat them in a prima facie derisory fashion would be to go against my own arguments (and when the book is published, that would really be embarrassing) but sometimes I do have a “Why would they think that?” moment where any potential sympathy for a conspiracy theory just melts away.

Not Offered In 2014 was one of those moments. I first heard mutterings about the page on Twitter, and then someone sent me a link to a The Daily Blog post about it. My reaction was “Well, if it’s a conspiracy, it’s one that’s been going on for a really long time!”

The conspiracy theory that emerged from “Not Offered In 2014” goes something like this: students enrolling for courses next year at the University of Auckland have noticed that the list of courses scheduled for teaching next year are a minor subset of the courses listed in the University Calendar. Some of the papers that aren’t being offered are things like “After Neoliberalism”, and this lead to the claim that perhaps the government (in particular, Minister of Tertiary Education Steven Joyce) was cutting finding to the Arts to further the Governments sinister (but not admittedly secret) plan to ruin public education in Aotearoa.

Now, I should like to point out here and now that the claim of conspiracy has been thoroughly debunked by the University of Auckland, who presented a very mundane explanation of what was going on, and this explanation by the University of Auckland has been accepted by the people behind “Not Offered In 2014”. As such, the following analysis is very much a reminder of why we shouldn’t jump to conclusions, rather than an assault on the (now reformed) conspiracy theorists of the “Not Offered In 2014” movement (such that it was; my, but I’m fond of bracketed comments at the moment).

The reason why I found the claims behind “Not Offered In 2014” so weird was because it’s always been the case that scheduled courses are a subset of calendered courses: when I first enrolled at the University of Auckland (when Blur were still a new band and Elastica was popular) I remember looking at the University Calendar and selecting the courses I was going to take in my first year, only to find, when I picked up a couple of Departmental Handbooks, that these courses were not offered that year (in those days the notion of a University of Auckland website with easily accessible and centralised information about course offerings was a more distant dream than it is today). It turned out (and it still turns out) that the University has more courses listed in the calendar than it ever teaches in a year. Not only that, but many of the courses in the calendar are very rarely taught: they exist there as a reminder of what was once taught and what might be taught again.

So, my worry about the “Not Offered In 2014” thesis can be summed up as “Why is this suddenly an issue?”

Well, perhaps it was the context. As I’ve already mentioned, the current government really does seem to be going out of its way to make public education increasingly tokenistic, and Minister Joyce has opined quite a bit about how universities need to produce people with skills the market can easily employ. Joyce seems to think that Arts degrees are useless (he’s wrong about this, and demonstrably so, but Joyce and the National Party in general tend to decry evidence-based policies). So, if you were a political interested Art student who thought they had seen a drop in courses in your faculty of choice, you might very well think “Yet another nail in public education!”

However, this theory, nice as it seems, doesn’t fit the evidence, because we can’t just look at paper offerings in one year: we have to look at offerings across several years, and that’s where the theory falters. Either this is a conspiracy spanning several decades or it’s not a conspiracy at all.

As I said, in the mid-nineties the problem of scheduled courses being a subset of calendared courses was well known, and people with more time than me have gone through and looked at offerings in the past few years and compared them to next year. In most cases, departments are either offering 1 more or 1 less paper per semester than they have done in previous years: across the board it looks as if the total number of papers taught in 2014 is roughly the same as in the last few years.

So, no conspiracy. Well, no new conspiracy: it’s possible there is a long-standing conspiracy in operation to gradually run down the Arts, but it’s not Minister Joyce’s conspiracy and, arguably, if such a conspiracy exists, Labour is probably in on it too (the previous administration was no friend to the Arts either).

So, why did the story take off? Why did “Not Offered In 2014” end up being talked about on bFM (and not just by me)? Why did the University have to make a statement about how course offerings in the Arts hadn’t been cut?

I don’t know. I can hazard a kind of educated guess, which is that students are both wary about the increasing role central government has in saying what should and shouldn’t be taught in our universities. Students are also becoming more aware that the leadership at the University of Auckland is focused more on research than it is on teaching. Overall, university students are becoming more worried and thus more politically active (and it’s about time too, methinks). This, I think, lead to people demanding answers to a question the University didn’t expect to be asked: the Arts faculty fumbled their initial response because, like me, they probably wondered why the question was even being asked.