By Charles Fedor
After the Vice-Chancellor’s concession that data in the original proposal was faulty, UWA has been remarkably opaque with providing any data to justify the cuts. This opaqueness has translated to the Pelican magazine, staff, and the Academic Board being denied access to the underlying data of the proposal. This information blockade has been ongoing for several years with requests for financial information on a school basis being denied by the university. Though we placed our trust in the university that it will make data-based decisions, it seems that this trust was unfortunately misplaced. Though Pelican had hoped that the Academic Board will be granted access to the information necessary to make an informed decision, that was unfortunately also misplaced.
However, through the bravery of sources across the university, Pelican can reveal an explosive document that debunks a significant number of claims made by the university.
This article will firstly outline the corroborated data around the Social Sciences, revealing that the proposed restructure actually makes very little sense. Then I will outline the suspicious timeline in which the Department of Geography and Planning moved into the social sciences just as the restructure appears to viciously cut its competitors*.
Statistics: A Masquerade
Statistics are some of the most powerful instruments universities have in distilling a complicated situation into easily digestible numbers. However, statistics have a number of flaws, including the need for comparable data and, most pertinent to this article, their vulnerability to cherry picking. In this case the university included in its proposal the following statistics as pseudo-justification:
- 80% of external research funding was secured by Geography and Archaeology:
- Note that Geography and Archaeology are significantly more expensive as they require labs and scientific equipment and resources.
- 77% decline in enrolments in the Anthropology and Sociology Major and that this is unsustainable low
The above data have already been debunked by multiple sources that can be found on the ‘Save Social Sciences’ website. The decline in enrolments figure has been admitted by the Vice-Chancellor himself as faulty. Though these numbers sound extremely convincing, they actually do not tell you the full story. Note that no justification was provided for cuts to world-renowned academics with significant publishing presence in:
- Asian Studies, which will lose all research time and status
- Political Science and International Relations, which will lose 30% of its ongoing staff.
Rather, these statistics have been considered ‘cherry-picked’ and actually don’t adequately contextualise the percentages quoted. This is a clear pitfall of using non-contextualised data. I am happy to clear up this Picasso-like statistical picture. A quick note when interpreting:
- ‘School’: This will be used to compare particular majors to the eight majors total clustered within the School of Social Sciences. These are: Anthropology and Sociology, Archaeology, Asian Studies (for ease of reference I will be grouping Asian Studies under this umbrella), Linguistics, Media and Communication, Political Science and International Relations, and Geography (Human Geography and Planning).
- ‘Bachelor’: This will be used to compare particular majors to all Bachelor of Arts majors, including social science and humanities majors. There are thirty-one majors in the Bachelor of Arts.
Let’s start off with major completions from 2015-2020:
- Political Science was ranked 1st in the school. (1/8)
- Anthropology and Sociology was 3rd in the school (3/8)
- Geography (Human Geography and Planning) was 5th in the school (5/8)
Now if we were to look at enrolments in the Bachelor of Arts from 1st Semester 2021:
- Political Science sits as the largest major in terms of enrolments in the Bachelor of Arts (1/31)
- Communication and Media Studies sits as the 4th largest major in terms of enrolments in the Bachelor of Arts (4/31)
- Anthropology and Sociology sits as the 9th largest major (9/31)
If we were to look at Bachelor of Arts (Honours) completions from the last seven years (2013-2020):
- Political Science and International Relations sits as the largest major (1/31)
- Anthropology and Sociology sits as 6th largest major (6/31)
In addition, if were to look at total enrolments in the Bachelor of Arts over the last five years as their first major (2016-2021)
- Political Science was the largest major (1/31)
- Communication and Media studies was the 3rd largest (3/31)
- Anthropology and Sociology was the 9th largest (9/31)
- No other social science major cracked the top 10.
Now let’s look at the largest majors in the Bachelor of Arts in Semester 1 in terms of enrolments, if we were to add the first majors and those who took each major as a second major:
- Political Science sits as the largest major (1/31)
- Communication and Media studies sits as the 4th largest major (4/31)
- Anthropology and Sociology sits as the 7th largest major (7/31)
- Archaeology sits as the 19th largest major (19/31)
- Geography (Human Geography and Planning) sits as 27th largest major (27/31)
The proposal for change makes little statistical sense. As my maths teacher used to say in high school “Charles, that doesn’t add up and even if it did, that is not how you do maths”. All of these data raise significant questions over the process and decision-making that the university has undertaken and shows either an ignorance of fact or a deliberate omission of context. This might naturally ask a question of what is the angle here? Well reader let me posit to you, a coincidence.
Coincidence or Planned?
It may come as a shock to you that the School of Social Sciences was not actually the home of Geography and Planning (GAP) until very recently. GAP was part of the UWA School of Agriculture and Environment during 2017-2019. This was after having been denied its own School of Geography and Environmental Science in 2016 as a result of the previous round of restructuring. After the majority of GAP academic staff opted to transfer from their school and the Faculty of Science to the Faculty of Arts, Business, Law, and Education (FABLE), GAP became a department, outside of any School. Unbeknownst to the Social Science Executive committee, a proposal was considered by the FABLE Executive committee to merge GAP with the School of Social Sciences in 2019. This proposal only considered the ‘academic’ case and was devoid of financial modelling.
After the faculties were disestablished last year, Geography’s home was a matter of considerable speculation. After Amanda Davies’ appointment as Head of School of Social Sciences in March 2020, a potential home of Geography in the School of Social Sciences seemed like a reasonable assumption.
Many academics in the school noted at the time that they were not against this idea, however they wanted to know the financial implications of this move and were expecting consultation. This consultation with the school never materialised, and in January this year, Dr Davies announced the immediate integration of GAP into the School, shrugging off concerns that:
- No financial modelling had been done or released to affected parties
- No school strategy had been formulated after the departure of the previous Head of School
- No consultation had been done with disciplines that were part of Social Sciences
This cavalier attitude was then paired, a few months later, with an invitation from Dr Davies this year for a two-day ‘school planning day’ in second semester. The purpose being to bring all social science members together to discuss teaching plans, course changes and develop a strategic plan. Despite this promise, Dr Davies instead released a proposal before these planning days were even conducted, with zero consultation from staff. This proposal does the following:
- Axes the high-performing discipline of Anthropology and Sociology.
- Threatens the viability and reputation of the School’s most successful undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in Political Science and International Relations.
- Cuts research positions that keep these majors consistently relevant and at the cutting edge of academia.
- Promotes and preserves a narrowly defined understanding of Human Geography that somehow will only apply to regional development within Western Australia
- Restricts “Flagship” research programme status to Archaeology and Human Geography.
- Makes redundant high-performing academics outside of this narrowly defined interest area including an academic who was Coordinating Lead Author (CLA) of Chapter 5 “Sustainable Development, Poverty Eradication and Reducing Inequalities” of the Special Report on 1.5C Global Warming of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – The world’s authoritative United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change and guiding government policy. An exceptionally prestigious position that UWA should be proud to support.
- Preserves two research positions in the school that are externally funded from undisclosed sources
It is clear that GAP has gotten off comparatively lightly despite continuously low enrolment numbers, and a lack of history within the school. It also lacks a clear presence in the pre-proposal social science vision for the school. The Head of School holds a Geography degree, and the Deputy Head of School holds an Archaeology degree.
It’s therefore easy to understand why perceptions of bias exist around the details of this proposal.
*Sub-Editor’s Note: I hold the highest respect for geographers and their field. However, it is necessary in this case to raise questions about exactly how the decision was made around Geography’s place within the restructure. This is not a criticism of the discipline or its academic utility, rather a question of how certain staff were protected from the proposed budget cut and others were not.
Also note that an ‘amended’ proposal has been discussed by management and an email sent by the Vice-Chancellor. Stay tuned for details of this version of the to be published by Pelican later this weekend.
This piece can only be provided to you through the hard work and courage of a number of sources across the university and community. If you have information that you think needs to be shared, please contact me via phone at 0437 496 648. Your anonymity is guaranteed.