By Millie Muroi
The University of Western Australia (UWA) is aiming to almost double the student-staff ratio and move towards more teaching-focused positions in the social sciences.
Those goals were outlined in the School of Social Sciences Proposal for Change Consultation Paper.
The proposal comes as a response to the UWA executive’s priorities for 2021 which are: budget sustainability, student load growth, and improving the student experience.
Increasing the student-staff ratio
The School of Social Sciences will target an overall student-staff ratio (SSR) of about 35, almost doubling its current figure.
The School’s current SSR of 18.6 (excluding casual staff) is relatively low according to the Department of Education and is spread unevenly across disciplines.
That suggests the teaching program is financially unsustainable, according to the paper.
More teaching-focused positions
While seven new academic positions will be created, 18 will be cut, with 12 moved towards more teaching-focused appointments in the School of Social Sciences.
The paper proposed for new positions to be created in areas including Geography, Archaeology, and Linguistics.
The 12 continuing academic positions moving towards teaching-focused appointments would include staff across Languages, Asian studies, and Media and communications.
The 18 teaching and research positions to be discontinued according to the proposal included three from Geography and Planning, one from Japanese Studies, eight from Anthropology and Sociology, one from Archaeology (including Forensic Anthropology), and three from Political Sciences and International Relations.
Refocusing research and restructuring
UWA is seeking to refine and focus its efforts in “strongly emerging areas”, as well as existing areas of strength, aiming to improve its rankings and performance against competitors, according to the paper.
It cited ongoing low engagement in demand-driven research across the School.
While the Uni’s investment in research has been evenly distributed across staff, the paper outlined some disciplines have diversified their funding more successfully than others.
Geography and Archaeology secured 80 per cent of the School’s total external research funding between 2015 and 2020.
The paper notes emerging research areas such as Forensic Anthropology will continue to be developed and supported through industry funding and grants.
That is despite the School looking to discontinue the Anthropology and Sociology major.
Under the new School structure, Forensic Anthropology will be subsumed under the Department of Geography and Archaeology, which will sit alongside two other broad departments: Department of Politics, Society and Policy, and Department of Linguistics, Communication and Language.
The School is currently composed of one department with six disciplines.
“These proposed departments reflect the future strategic direction of the School in terms of teaching and research priorities and will enhance the capacity for resource sharing,” the paper stated.
Challenges and change for the social sciences
Low graduate employment, low satisfaction, and low enrolment are some of the problems faced by the University, but it is a field with growth potential, according to the paper.
“The Good University Guide (2021) notes that, amongst the Go8, social sciences and humanities graduates from The University of Western Australia have the lowest rate of full-time employment 4 months after graduation,” the paper noted.
“Quality Indicators for Teaching and Learning (QILT) survey data also indicate that UWA students in the humanities, culture and social sciences study area were less satisfied than those at other Western Australian Universities.”
Despite initiatives to attract students, enrolments in the Anthropology and Sociology major declined by 77 per cent between 2015 and 2020, according to the paper.
It also asserted the social sciences had fallen behind STEM fields in ensuring relevance and impact was a primary focus of its activities.
But the paper also acknowledged in light of complex problems brought about in 2020, “the need for applied social science graduates and researchers is clear”.
Better access to experiential learning, work integrated learning, and fieldwork opportunities have been flagged by the School as techniques to increase the applicability of its courses.
The consultation period for the proposed changes will conclude on the 20th of July.