VCA students lodging complaint to Victorian Ombudsman in fight for fee relief6 June 2021
Students of the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) are planning to lodge a formal complaint to the Victorian Ombudsman about the University of Melbourne’s alleged failure to provide the quality of education promised to them.
Students have turned to the Ombudsman for help with their fee relief campaign as they believe they have been unsupported and silenced by the University.
This comes after the University Academic Registrar twice dismissed a formal grievance lodged by William Hall, University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) Southbank Co-ordinator and VCA Acting student, on behalf of students undertaking the Acting Lab 1 subject.
The grievance was lodged in late December 2020 following almost an entire year of practical Acting subjects taught via Zoom as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Students believe that the online delivery provided by the College prevented learning outcomes outlined in the University Handbook from being achieved.
Prior to the pandemic, the Acting Lab 1 unit provided students with a strong physical exploration of Shakespeare and clown-work. Classes began at 9am and concluded at 1pm with students later being in rehearsal rooms at 2pm until 6pm. The original subject outline described 16 contact hours per week, though student timetables indicated 28 contact hours needed for completion of the unit.
The transition to online learning saw contact hours drop significantly with lessons failing to fulfil the original time slot. Four hour Shakespeare rehearsals were often reduced to small 15-20 minute meetings, while student attendance also dropped due to lack of space and resources.
For students of the VCA, the decisions carried out by the University Chancellery make them accountable for the substandard education that they experienced last year.
“Ultimately, we feel we have been cheated of the true University of Melbourne experience,” read the grievance letter lodged to the Academic Registrar.
“There is no doubt that our educational experience was severely diminished this past semester.”
After the initial dismissal of the complaint, Hall lodged an appeal and an investigation was instigated by the University. This investigation saw the Academic Registrar approach the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music and ask if they believed that the teaching provided was adequate.
The Faculty then responded by producing their own investigation where they asked staff to evaluate their work as teachers without consulting students. A majority of the staff asserted that they believed that their teaching last year online was up to the standard required.
The investigation also utilised excerpts from reflective journals, a required assignment submission, from students and clips from ‘Thank You’ videos addressed to VCA staff to further justify their teaching quality.
Hall asserts that the University had taken lines from the reflective journals out of context and printed them to indicate that students were indeed satisfied with the subject quality. Moreover, the ‘Thank You’ videos were deeply personal messages recorded and meant only for the directors of the Shakespeare online performances.
The gratitude expressed within those videos were not reflections on the subject delivery but a personal message to convey their appreciation to the directors for their work during a pandemic.
The results of the Faculty’s investigation were then sent to the Academic Registrar who saw the Faculty’s positive evaluation of their own work and therefore dismissed the complaint lodged by VCA students.
“The online classes provided were of at least an equivalent standard to their face-to-face versions, and the necessary knowledge and skills were taught,” read the Faculty report.
Many students felt frustrated, hurt, and betrayed that the University chose to use their assignment submissions and personal messages as evidence against them to prove that there was satisfaction with the subject. Mr Hall claims that it provided a “wild misrepresentation of what students were actually writing”.
One journal excerpt cited in the report is from Hugo Gutteridge who undertook studies in Shakespeare last year.
The excerpt used for the report reads: “I had a lot of fun figuring out how we could make the shots look more interesting or how we could use the multi locational arrangement of the characters work for the story … Working with my fellow actors was amazing also because we all tried to be as caring, respectful and enthusiastic as we could be in the circumstances.”
However, Gutteridge’s entire statement encompasses his feelings of discontentment studying Acting online.
“I guess in the end I was disappointed,” he wrote.
“I just wonder at why it is necessary, why they chose to do a bastardized version of the degree instead of starting in July.”
Hall’s second appeal was dismissed again without a hearing in front of the Academic Board by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic).
Despite this, the spokesperson for the University said that “concerns raised through the Student Complaints and Grievances Policy are taken seriously and are fully considered”.
“We have continued to monitor our services closely through the COVID-19 pandemic, enabling further support for students who continue to face very challenging circumstances, and are working hard to ensure they are aware of all the support services available to them,” said the spokesperson.
Hall says that this is not enough, and his complaint was not alone in the push for fee relief.
2020 UMSU Southbank Co-ordinators Hayden Williams and Verity Crane filed their own formal letter on behalf of Fine Arts undergraduate students to Tony Smith, Interim Head of Theatre, last April asking for their advocacy and solidarity in their campaign.
Student representatives also met throughout last year with Mr Smith but were asked not to express their grievances directly to staff as it may give the impression that they were failing.
In addition, students hosted online events of collective action to publicly call for fee relief having continued to feel aggrieved by how the University has responded to their requests.
Hall hopes of receiving a fair and considerate investigation by the Ombudsman for the fee relief campaign.
“I think they’re [the University] gutless. I think their priorities don’t lie with students,” said Hall.
“This is a unique place, but it needs to be fought for.”
Image supplied by William Hall