We, The University of Western Australia Academic Staff Association, submit this response to the proposal to restructure the School of Social Sciences. We focus on two very important aspects: the process by which it appears to have been derived and key aspects of its substance as it pertains to the interests of academic staff.
While we accept that the fiscal challenges facing UWA are real, the rationale for each School’s budget reduction targets remains opaque, as does the rationale for the timeframe that has been established for completion of the budgetary cuts. Given the scale of the proposed changes and their impact on staff, students, and the university’s reputation, we would suggest that the UWA Executive owes all stakeholders a full and frank explanation of its reasoning on both counts.
The provision of such information would constitute a consultative step. Consultation implies the sharing of information, and the debate of values and rationales. These are processes long practiced in academia. Consultation maximizes the extent to which a plan benefits from the information, logic, and experiences of those with a stake in the outcome. While all may not agree, when the process is thoroughly inclusive, consultation can arrive at consensus and consensus increases the likelihood of a plan’s success. Consultation not only supports improved outcomes but also mitigates against outcomes such as score settling, feathering of the decision maker’s own nest, misinformation, mistaken assumptions, and other potential problems that can poison new structures and relationships. In short, it prevents embarrassing misfires that erode confidence in the institution both internally and externally.
It might be argued that there was no way to engage meaningfully with staff in a process of change that, because of the very significant size of the financial cut to the school, necessarily required there to be job losses. The idea here being that staff could not be expected to make good decisions about circumstances that might lead to their own redundancy. This is an important consideration; however, we are not convinced that such a situation would inevitably lead to poor outcomes. It might, instead, have brought to light solutions that have not been fully explored in the current proposal, including voluntary redundancy, job sharing, decisions to take a fractional appointment, early retirement, etc.
The reception of the change proposal for the School of Social Sciences has been a case study in the pitfalls of failing to consult. Responsibility for this failure lies with UWA’s most senior leaders, who set the tone for all of our institutional processes and thereby authorize the approaches adopted by lower-ranking leaders, such as Heads of Schools. To our knowledge, the Heads of Schools have been provided with opaquely derived budgetary reduction targets, and in the case of the School of Social Sciences the response is an equally opaquely derived change proposal, which is grounded in no recognizable, real consultation. To our knowledge, inclusive group discussions of the problems to be solved, potential solutions, and the costs / benefits of various approaches were lacking. The result is a narrowly formulated proposal that presents contradictive and, in some cases inaccurate, evidence, and ignores the interests of key stakeholders such as higher degree by research students who would lose supervisors and the respectability of their chosen research programs.
All these embarrassing and reputationally devastating oversights could have been avoided if an adequate consultation process had been initiated by the Executive and followed up by the full School of Social Science. The ASA therefore hopes that upcoming change processes can learn from these mistakes. Indeed, because the School of Social Sciences’ change process is the first substantive step in a major restructure planned over the next year, it potentially sets the bar for effective use of data and quality of process. The prospect of a series of similar proposed School changes causing similar reputational damage to UWA in the national and international academic community in coming months is surely to be avoided.
Furthermore, a decision as significant as the excision of a discipline (of 60 years standing) from the University is one for the governing body, i.e., the Senate. The significance of such a decision is captured in our Statutes and the notion that it might be devolved to an individual Head of School undermines our Governance processes, which are designed to protect the integrity and good standing of the University. Any proposal to do so should provide the governing body with an irrefutable argument based in data and logic that the governing body can use to explain such a weighty decision.
For this reason, we respectfully request that the proposal be returned to the School of Social Sciences for genuine consultation with all impacted stakeholders. It is crucial that the best processes and the full weight of UWA expertise is put to addressing a financial problem created through over-expenditure and under-oversight.
Concerns with specifics of the change proposal
With respect to the specifics of the School of Social Sciences’ change proposal, we have several concerns which can be summarised as follows:
a. despite the university’s current strategic commitment to student experience, it positions teaching as less important than research, and curtails the academic activity of disciplines that can boast higher student-staff ratios and higher student evaluations of teaching by taking away the opportunity for their staff to engage meaningfully in both teaching and research.
b. it entrenches a two-tier or classist system that blatantly positions teaching focused disciplines as cash-cows supporting research intensive disciplines.
c. it perpetuates the flaw in evaluation of research that has plagued UWA for some time—mistaking the dollars coming in as the sine qua non of success, rather than the production of knowledge flowing out. Much of the high-quality research produced in the Social Sciences doesn’t require large inputs of grant money, rather it requires sufficient time put aside in the workload, exactly what this proposal intends to take away.
d. Anthropology and Sociology are the engine rooms of social theory, which is essential for every other discipline in the social sciences. As such, it is nonsensical to suggest that a school of social sciences could fulfil its teaching objectives without this discipline, especially in the context of a comprehensive university. The Bachelor of Arts, in particular, would be seriously diminished by such a move. HDR students in anthropology and sociology would also be very adversely impacted. Further, research in anthropology and sociology provide critical foundational work for other fields such as law, economics, and humanities; even the most highly ranked of science specialist Universities (e.g., Cal Tech, MIT, Johns Hopkins) have Anthropology programs. The discipline of Anthropology and Sociology at UWA is home to highly accomplished and respected scholars of international repute. The implications of a Go8, research intensive university such as UWA abandoning its commitment to this discipline would thus be felt throughout our research network, both internally and externally. The reputational damage is already far-reaching.
e. The transformation of the disciplines of Media and Communication, Asian Studies and the Asian languages of Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese and Korean into teaching focused programs will have very serious implications for teaching and research staff in these areas. This proposal devalues their existing research output, even though it compares favourably with the output of staff in other disciplines; it will also drastically diminish the future research capabilities of these staff, and in so doing jeopardises their individual career prospects. Further, it misunderstands the specialties of Media and Communication Studies and Asian Studies as ‘skills’ programs rather than scholarly fields. This is insulting not only to the scholars in these fields, but also to those who actually specialise in the teaching of communication or language skills, as the proposal assumes that anyone in the broader discipline can be simply redirected to those complex tasks. Where it confines certain disciplines to teaching-focused, the proposal is also particularly damaging to the student experience, as it severs the teaching-research nexus and threatens to create two classes of students: those who have access to research-active academics and those who do not, depending on which major or course they choose to pursue.
f. The cumulative impact of these measures, should they be implemented, is also deeply parochial. One of the many useful concepts developed by sociologists is ‘glocalization’, or the interconnection of global and local issues. Social scientists understand that both are important; that we cannot understand the local without reference to the global, and vice versa. Yet, this change proposal seeks to elevate research programs focused on Australian and particularly Western Australian contexts, while eliminating or marginalizing disciplines that foreground global contexts and issues. In addition to distorting the balance of social scientific inquiry, the cultural and linguistic diversity of the school’s curriculum and staff profile will be reduced, calling UWA’s alleged commitment to inclusion and diversity into question, and jeopardizing the School of Social Science’s capacity to meet student and community expectations in this regard.
We are fully aware that the university is in a difficult position. We are fully aware that difficult choices are inevitable. But difficult as they may be, structural changes must meet three non-negotiable requirements:
1. They need to be developed in an environment of true consultation with the broad input of those within the School and those for whom changes will have concrete impacts.
2. They need to be carried out with respect for the individuals affected and their professionalism.
3. They need to make sense strategically from an academic point of view.
The proposal for the restructure of the School of Social Sciences is wanting on all counts.
As we need to undergo significant change, we should do it transparently and together as a community; not in a fashion that isolates affected staff and fosters a toxic environment of inward-looking schools and disciplines competing against each other for survival. UWA’s Vision 2030 statement commits to the values of excellence, integrity, innovation, collaboration, and equity. These values cannot be adopted only when convenient, or only after we’ve balanced our budget. If our institution is to embody these values, they must be practiced and internalized through everything we do, including our processes for tackling change. Because none of these values are on display in the change proposal for the School of Social Sciences it is, by UWA’s own standards, entirely substandard.
The governing committee of the University of Western Australia Academic Staff Association
Nin Kirkham (Philosophy)
Debra Judge (Human Science)
Allan McKinley (Molecular Science)
Stella Tarrant (Law)
Emily Brink (Design)
Marco Rizzi (Law)
Shane Maloney (Human Science)
Steven Dobbs (Social Science)
Chantal Bourgault Du Coudray (Humanities)
Brett Montgomery (Medicine)