This is no way to treat the Social Sciences – Newsletter July 2021

Dear members and colleagues,

As you certainly already know, the proposal to restructure the School of Social Sciences was presented last week. Should it be approved in its current form, the restructure would have devastating implications for both the school and its staff, involving significant redundancies, the discontinuation or stifling of disciplines, and the thwarting of research efforts in certain fields. It will also adversely impact students, especially HDR students.

The NTEU is the competent body to tackle the industrial aspect of the proposal. However, as the voice of academics at UWA, we have concerns about a proposal that makes questionable choices from an academic perspective. Because it is the first substantive step in a major restructure planned over the next year, we have scrutinized both the proposal and the process behind it, in terms of its implications for teaching, research and academic citizenship.

The key points of the proposal to restructure the School of Social Sciences, which we annex to this newsletter, are as follows:
1. There will be 16 redundancies of ongoing academic staff members across a range of disciplines, which will enable the school to concentrate its resources in support of ‘flagship’ research in the disciplines of Archaeology and Human Geography. What the implications will be for fixed-term staff remains unclear.
2. The discipline of Anthropology and Sociology will be discontinued.
3. The disciplines of Media and Communication, Asian Studies and the Asian languages of Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese and Korean will be transformed into teaching focused programs only.

We consider each of these proposed changes in turn.

1. In justifying the proposed redundancies, the proposal notes that student-staff ratios are significant, but in this respect, the disciplines being hailed as ‘flagships’ are amongst the lowest performing discipline groups in the school; whereas disciplines targeted for redundancies or reclassification as ‘teaching focused’ are already performing strongly against this criterion. It is also worth noting that student evaluations of teaching associated with the flagship areas are notably lower when compared with other disciplines in the school. However, the flagship research areas both have strong records of securing external funding.

Despite the alleged emphasis on student-staff ratios it is thus apparent that external research funding is driving evaluation of disciplines in the School of Social Sciences. This is concerning because:

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.

2. Anthropology and sociology is the engine room 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 also provides critical foundational work for other fields such as law, economics and humanities; and 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.

3. 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, despite the fact that it currently 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 specialities 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.

This aspect of the proposal is also damaging to the student experience since, in proposing to sever the teaching-research nexus, it 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.

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.

As these various concerns suggest, there is a broader issue underpinning the proposal. As we know, the plan to achieve financial sustainability is to have ‘local leaders’ make decisions based on a budget received from the executive. Even though there is no transparency as to why certain schools are required to cut more from their budgets than others, this empowerment of local leaders potentially supports change programs that are contextually sensitive. Conversely, it also risks unleashing change programs that are insufficiently answerable to stakeholders, standards and processes beyond the local leader’s jurisdiction. For example, the university’s governance processes affirm that it is not the role of a head of school, but rather, the Academic Board, to make decisions about the discontinuation of a major. We therefore wonder why this change proposal has been endorsed by the UWA Executive, given the document’s evident oversight of this requirement.

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 two non-negotiable requirements:
1. They need to be carried out with respect for the individuals affected and their professionalism;
2. 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 both 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 UWA Academic Staff Association will be hosting a forum on the afternoon of the 29th of July. We will present our report entitled “Interpreting UWA’s Finances” and then open up to a broader discussion of the implications of the Social Sciences Change Proposal for the Structural Reform Program as it proceeds through the University. More details will be sent out soon, but we look forward to seeing you there. As usual, the forum will be followed by collegial drinks at the University Club Café.

As always, we encourage you to share this email with colleagues who are not yet members of UWAASA. Those reading this who are not yet members, please consider joining (you can do so via our website ).

With our best regards,
The UWAASA Governing Committee

1 thought on “This is no way to treat the Social Sciences – Newsletter July 2021”

  1. I cannot understand why ASA has not mentioned the dissolution of urban planning at UWA. It gets not one mention here, despite it also facing closure. This submission only considers a very narrow range of subjects, and it would be nice if all disciplines affected were given attention in a submission.

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