The University of Western Australia (UWA) has recently presented to staff the School of Social Sciences Proposal for Change Consultation Paper (the Proposal). Despite the innocent-sounding title, the Proposal sets the stage for a devastating attack on the social sciences at UWA.
While UWA plans to establish seven new teaching-focused positions within the School, it also intends to remove sixteen full-time academic positions and shift a further twelve from combined research and teaching focus to solely teaching-focused. This marks the death of research expertise in anthropology, sociology and Asian studies. Research expertise will be lost in media and communications, urban planning, political science and international relations. The student-teacher ratio for the School of Social Sciences will nearly double with no details given of greater support for staff to meet their increased workload.
UWA plans to discontinue the Anthropology and Sociology Discipline and major, and the Master of Urban and Regional Planning. Furthermore, fewer units will be offered in the Master of International Relations, the Asian Studies major, and the Human and Environmental Geography and Planning majors. The School will collapse six disciplines to three departments, and research within the School will reorient to concentrate on two ‘flagship’ areas, Australian archaeology and human geography. Vice-Chancellor Professor Amit Chakma has suggested that similar cuts should be expected for other Schools.
The university community has quickly united in opposition to the Proposal. Public statements opposing the Proposal have been made by dozens of organisations internationally, including the Student Guild, Arts Union, National Tertiary Education Union (WA), UWA’s Postgraduate Students’ Association, the Australian Archaeological Association and the Australian Anthropological Association. Media coverage has been universally negative. This is not to mention many highly respected academics and public figures including Senator the Hon. Kim Carr (LAB), Dr Anne Aly MP (ALP), Senator Mehreen Faruqi (GRN) and Maggie Dent who have also spoken out. A protest held last Friday drew a crowd of over 250 people, despite the short notice and poor weather.
Why the cuts?
UWA administrators justify the cuts by arguing that they are a necessary, if regrettable, move to meet their three strategic priorities for 2021: budget sustainability, student load growth and improving the student experience. Persistently insufficient funding from government and private sources render the status quo financially unsustainable, they say. The Job Ready Graduates Package legislation worsened the situation because it reduced funding for social science degrees. The Proposal goes on to say that the School has seriously underperformed and suffers from low enrolments.
A detailed rebuttal
Given the drastic cuts proposed, its useful to check whether these assertions are actually true or not. Academic staff directly affected by the proposed changes have prepared a detailed rebuttal exhaustively fact-checking the Proposal. Their research has made this clear: the Proposal is deeply flawed, results from an opaque, unfair process and depends on potentially dishonest arguments.
The human cost of budget balancing
Financial sustainability is an important concern for UWA and should be taken seriously. However, as Professor James Guthrie has argued here and here, UWA’s practices are seriously misguided. Professor Guthrie was surprised to see UWA prioritising infrastructure projects and reaching a cash margin of 15%. As he asks, what is the point of pursuing that cash margin if it means sacrificing the human capital central to “teaching, research and the student experience?”
UWA administrators have shown little interest in alternative approaches that could improve enrolments and financial results. Instead of reducing his own pay, Dr Chakma prefers to see the School of Social Sciences bleed academic talent. This is despite the last Vice-Chancellor’s salary benefits exceeding $1 million in 2019, double that of equivalent positions in the UK.
Staff report that the Head of School, Dr Amanda Davies, has blocked several staff-proposed initiatives. Instead of developing a separate sociology major or investing in marketing and high school outreach programs, Dr Davies has preferred to reduce unit offerings and is a leading force behind the proposed job cuts (Rebuttal, p. 9).
How this hurts the student experience
The Proposal provides no detailed strategy for meeting its own targets. For example, doubling the student-teacher ratio as the Proposal suggests would require increasing student enrolments by a third (over three hundred full-time students!). However, there’s little concrete support offered to help staff adapt to such a drastic shift in workload. Neither does the Proposal explain in detail how the School could increase enrolments (Rebuttal, pp. 7, 9).
Research expertise has long been accepted as central to high-quality teaching and it is therefore unclear how UWA could improve the student experience by gutting that expertise. The Anthropology and Sociology Discipline which UWA plans to axe includes some of the University’s highest-performing academics and is responsible for more “[research] than most other disciplines within the School.” Worryingly, the Proposal repeatedly downplays or fails to mention the significant contributions Discipline staff have made to research and in service roles (Rebuttal, pp. 1, 7, 12, 13).
International opposition suggests that the Proposal has already hurt the reputation of Australia and UWA as a leader in social science research. How can UWA expect to attract high-quality research staff if it is willing to suddenly axe whole Disciplines despite their impressive research contributions?
What this means for Australian and international students
Despite UWA’s stated commitment to being a globally engaged university and despite the increasing importance of the Asia-Pacific region, the Proposal marks a sudden shift to a more parochial approach. It’s hard to imagine that the School could effectively engage with the world if it loses all research expertise in Asian studies and focuses research on just Australian archaeology and human geography (Rebuttal, pp. 7, 13).
If this isn’t bad enough, the Proposal will likely leave Australia a poorer place. As Energy Matrix Group and journalist Aja Styles argue, anthropologists are incredibly important to successful engineering and mining projects that affect every part of the Australian economy. Gutting the School of Social Sciences will benefit no one.
The Proposal has already drawn fierce criticism from international students and the organisations representing them. This comes during a time where international students are already struggling and have lost interest in Australian study due to poor support from universities and government.
This heralds another significant blow to the Australian economy. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, international education was the third-largest export industry for the nation. If the Proposal drives away those students, UWA and Australia lose an important source of income.
Disturbingly, University administrators have apparently used the language of social justice to undermine its spirit. The Proposal notes correctly that the School of Social Science has low enrolment rates for Indigenous students and students from low socio-economic backgrounds. It also commits to aiding Indigenous empowerment by reviewing course content to embed “Indigenous knowledge and perspectives”.
The problem is that UWA has failed to explain how its plan will change this situation for the better. All schools within the university suffer low enrolment rates for disadvantaged minorities so this fact does not justify cuts to just one School. It’s also not clear how ending the Anthropology and Sociology major could aid indigenous empowerment given that the major prominently centres Indigenous perspectives (Rebuttal, Page 5, 13). As the Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation argues, UWA-trained anthropologists are incredibly important to the work they do. If the discipline is axed UWA jeopardises the contribution modern Australian anthropologists have made towards racial justice.
The Proposal relies on several misleading arguments that undermine the document’s legitimacy. As an example, the Proposal claims without evidence that between 2015 and 2020 the Anthropology and Sociology major experienced a 77% decline in enrolments. However, publicly available data demonstrates that enrolments fell only 8% over that period before rising 36% between 2020 and 2021. It’s impossible to fully fact-check this claim because university sources have refused several requests for important statistics (Rebuttal, pp. 9, 17; ‘Debunking’).
When pushed on this discrepancy by ABC Radio journalist Nadia Mitsopoulos, Dr Chakma floundered. He contradicted his own Proposal by suggesting that the 77% decline was between 2012 and 2020. Damningly, he again refused to provide access to the data he cites. It was only this week that Dr Chakma admitted the error, claiming instead (again without publicly available evidence) a decline of 40%.
While some statistics cited within the Proposal are accurate, the document frequently presents them in a misleading manner. The Proposal notes that graduates of UWA’s School of Social Sciences are employed at the lowest rate within the Group of Eight universities. Furthermore, the document claims that students in the humanities, culture and social science study area were less satisfied than students at other West Australian universities.
However, the Proposal fails to mention that UWA graduates are also employed at the lowest rate within the Group of Eight overall; social science students are employed at a similar rate to graduates of other Schools. The same sources cited within the Proposal demonstrate that both student engagement and teaching quality for HASS at UWA are ranked second within the Group of Eight while student satisfaction is the third-highest. All these measures are either equal to or greater than that of UWA overall (Rebuttal, pp. 5) It is therefore misleading to suggest, as the Proposal does, that their statistics demonstrate poor teaching quality within the School.
An unfair process
This is all without mentioning the sudden and horribly unfair way UWA has chosen to push through the Proposal. The Proposal was drafted with zero consultation from the academic staff and students most directly affected by the plan (Rebuttal, page 7). Post-draft consultation was initially limited to only two weeks before it was extended to the 27th of July due to public backlash. Insider reports from academic staff and recent graduates of the School, including Dr Tinashe Jakwa, suggest that meetings ostensibly held to consult with them are a sham, dominated by adversarial bureaucrats uninterested in genuine discussion.
Vice-Chancellor Dr Chakma only emailed students a week before consultation was planned to end (14th July), in an email that did not actually contain a copy of the Proposal. The wider student body therefore has no official access to a plan that will significantly impact their future education. Public comments from those responsible have been dismissive and suggest a poor understanding of their own arguments. How can UWA expect its students to have confidence in the university if UWA can’t even bother to tell them what’s happening?
The value of fact-checking
Fact-checking may be time-consuming but the investment is worth it; the detailed rebuttal from Save Social Sciences UWA provides an invaluable resource for truth-telling journalism and community-led opposition. It is only because of the research done by academic staff that I can say this: I believe that those who drafted the Proposal for Change are either incompetent or else have minimised consultation time and used misinformation to push through an unfounded attack on the social sciences. Either way, they have failed the university community and must be held accountable.
Readers can support opposition by signing petitions (see here and here) and by attending the protest planned for today (21st July, 11 a.m, Winthrop Hall). You can submit your detailed thoughts here and here.
Words by Tobias Langtry.
Image by Charles Fedor.