By Millie Muroi
The close-knit nature of the cohort, the importance of the discipline in tackling societal issues, and contributions made by staff are some elements highlighted by students opposing UWA’s proposed staff cuts.
Pelican spoke to four current or former UWA Anthropology and Sociology students about the value of their discipline and the opportunities it has opened up for them.
Anthropology and Sociology honours graduate Yux Seow told Pelican while she anticipated some budget cuts, she didn’t expect the University to take it as far as they proposed.
“I didn’t ever anticipate it to be the cull of an entire discipline,” she said.
“I felt really heart-broken and shocked about the cuts being made.”
She said her honours cohort echoed her sentiments.
“We are appalled, and we are grieving, and we are heartbroken, because all of us are really passionate about what we study and we view it as integral to society.”
Anthropology and Sociology graduate Kira Bradbury told Pelican she was hurt and disappointed that a top 100 university was attempting to justify the removal of research opportunities in what she saw as an increasingly relevant and important field.
“The proposed cuts to the Social Sciences department at UWA make me incredibly sad for the faculty and students who have dedicated their academic and professional lives to exploring and extending the boundaries of social science disciplines,” she said.
Miss Seow said that many key issues linked back to social sciences.
“So much of our lives are permeated by social science,” she said.
“Things like our lack of climate change agenda, steps towards reconciliation and recognition of First Nations people, cultural and heritage management, looking at Australia’s declining trade relationship with China, vaccine hesitancy, and even our response to COVID.”
“You can’t even begin to tackle these challenges and inequalities and injustices if you don’t have social scientists.”
Miss Bradbury added Anthropology and Sociology were relevant in every field of study and therefore in every industry, particularly in Australia.
“There is no way to quantify the value of social and cultural knowledge in Australia today,” she said.
“We are a country with a complicated and painful history which we have only recently acknowledged and attempted to begin reparative processes.”
“Without Anthropology and Sociology, there emerges a risk of losing touch with the realities of Australia’s past and present.”
Opportunities born from UWA’s Anthropology and Sociology discipline
From publishing an article born out of a unit she studied at UWA, to going on exchange to the University of Hong Kong, and with plans to take her studies overseas, Miss Seow said none of it would have been possible without studying Anthropology and Sociology at UWA.
“This year, I’ll be moving to Geneva to study international development and that would never have happened without Anthropology and Sociology,” she said.
Anthropology and Sociology student Madison Lee told Pelican her discipline was essential to society and that it had become an integral part of her life.
“To me as a student, I stumbled on Anthropology by accident and it has become my life calling,” she said.
Miss Bradbury said studying Anthropology and Sociology allowed her to develop skills she continues to rely on in her postgraduate studies.
“Being given the opportunity to study Anthropology and Sociology at UWA was one of the most significant points in my life,” she said.
“My undergraduate studies taught me to critically examine systems of beliefs, cultural and social practices, and the dimensions of the human experience in a rapidly evolving social landscape.”
“This also enabled me to question my own context and the ways in which my experiences have shaped who I am and the way I live my life.”
“I am currently in my last semester of my Master of Strategic Communications, forever relying on the skills and dedication I developed in my undergraduate studies to inform my work and career aspirations.”
What makes UWA’s Anthropology and Sociology discipline unique?
Miss Seow said the Anthropology and Sociology cohort was unique in its close-knit nature and that many of her peers were tackling timely and important issues as part of their dissertation topics.
“We are very close with our faculty, we see them as our peers and colleagues and friends,” she said.
“The support that we’ve had is unmatched in most degrees and institutions and disciplines.”
“In terms of the honours cohort, many of us have been working on dissertation topics that are extremely relevant to contemporary Australian society…vaccine hesitancy, queerness and drag culture, public discourse on stem cell research in Australia.”
“We’re also writing on Indigenous art, social movements, and the interface role anthropologists play between communities, Indigenous communities, and government.”
“Often, people misunderstand the role social sciences has to play in our lives and how important it is to train critical thinkers that engage with public discourse and Australia’s past, present, and future to create a world that is able to tackle and face these increasingly challenging situations of inequality, equity, democracy, freedom – all of these values which we all hold within ourselves.”
Miss Begley said the discipline shaped who she was and informed her world view.
“I wouldn’t know anything about human rights abuses, migration, refugees, climate change, globalisation, racism or injustice to the degree I do now if I hadn’t taken that course,” she said.
“It complimented my second major, law in society, so perfectly, and if I hadn’t taken Anthropology I wouldn’t have the passion for social justice in the legal sphere, particularly International human rights law, which is the basis of my thesis.”
“I wouldn’t have taken up that second major at all, which I can’t imagine ever not doing today.”
Miss Bradbury said her degree allowed her to explore ideas in a safe and supportive environment.
“Every unit of my degree was enriching, offering new perspectives and a chance to explore theoretical boundaries with the guidance of creative, dedicated, and articulate lecturers,” she said.
“I was never made to feel as if I was thinking “too big”, nor were my clumsily formed questions about theory and practice dismissed as naive or silly.”
“Studying Anthropology and Sociology in such a safe and intellectually stimulating environment gave me the confidence to pursue postgraduate studies.”
Miss Lee echoed those sentiments and said staff in the Anthropology and Sociology field were world-class.
“I have always felt so enriched and supported by the staff at the university,” she said.
Miss Seow said the social sciences has been gradually diminished by society and government and misunderstood in the integral role it plays – a trend she noted UWA could exacerbate.
“I think UWA is swaying in a dangerous precedent for the diminishing role social sciences has to play within every aspect in society,” she said.
“The staff contribute such important research in fields like migration, our relationship with Asia, with education, with understandings of society.”
Miss Begley similarly underscored that cutting the course meant taking away tools to tackle significant social issues.
“The executives who made this decision need to turn on the TV and see what’s happening in the world today – protests on racial inequality, families and children suffering in offshore detention, Indigenous deaths in custody, racism towards Asian individuals particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, the power and manipulation of the media press, and so so much more, to realise how crucial this degree is to informing individuals, and empowering them to make positive changes for the future.”
“It’s these kinds of students who will change the world, and it’s this degree that will aid significantly in achieving that.”
Miss Bradbury said the decision threatened the future prospects of students and academia.
“The proposed changes send a message that critical analysis, academic research skills, and cultural competence are not anticipated to be a part of the university and professional landscapes by UWA.”
“Instead of protecting and supporting the future academics and cultural leaders of the country, UWA has condemned the social sciences in favour of short-term financial stability.”
“UWA has a responsibility to explore other restructuring and budget options directly with the affected faculty members before making such drastic changes that will affect both the future of social sciences in Australia and the reputation of UWA as an internationally renowned provider of relevant and valuable education.”
Miss Bradbury said the proposal also worked against the University’s stated priorities for 2021, particularly improving the student experience.
“The removal of some of the most hardworking, dedicated, student-focused staff in the university can hardly be a step toward improving the student experience,” she said.
“This decision, combined with the challenges to student load growth posed by units conducted through online learning platforms, changing fees due to federal legislation, and the financial challenges of balancing study with work in the middle of a recession, have framed tertiary education as a more stressful and expensive experience than ever before.”
Miss Begley said she was shocked that the Uni were looking to cut the discipline given the interest she saw in it.
“I had many classes with so many enthusiastic students,” she said.
Miss Lee said there was not enough funding in the discipline from the University, both in terms of staffing and investment in marketing.
“I have noticed that the staff are stretched very thin due to low funding by the university,” she said.
“Supposed low enrolments is not the problem of a lack in relevance but a lack of investment in marketing.”
“I think if the university invested in secondary school outreach programs to try and recruit social scientists, like they do with other courses, then more people would be enrolling in the course.”
“I feel immense disappointment and sadness for the members of the Social Sciences department at UWA who seem more valued by their students than by their employer,” Miss Bradbury said.
“I have lost faith in the leaders of UWA and am deeply concerned for the prospective students who will have their academic choices informed by financial risk rather than pursuing their interests and goals in a stable university environment.”
Miss Lee said the University’s prioritisation of corporate interest was deeply saddening.
“I feel absolutely devastated,” she said.
“I don’t believe that the university will be the same after this.”
Miss Seow said the University would suffer deeply as a result of the proposal.
“The friendships with cohort, with classmates, with faculty…it’s been such an invaluable part of my life and I can’t even begin to comprehend what UWA will look like without Anthropology and Sociology”
“It’s a devastating loss to UWA.”
The consultation period for the proposal ends on the 20th of July.
Readers who are interested in supporting the movement against the proposal can access more information and sign the petition here.