By Danau Tanu
When I enrolled for an Arts degree in 1994, my engineer father thought I’d end up poor and unemployed. The Vice Chancellor’s recent proposal to gut the social sciences reminds me of my father’s past prejudice.
It was especially frustrating for my father because he knew that I was good at the hard sciences. I skipped pre-algebra in year seven and studied maths with the older kids and still excelled. But in my last year of high school, to his chagrin, I fell in love with social science.
As an undergraduate student at UWA, I majored in Political Science and Asian Studies, and I loved it. I was fascinated to learn that things that seemed natural like ‘community’ and ‘national identity’ are constructed and open to critical examination.
But it wasn’t until I began my postgraduate degree that I discovered Anthropology. This time, I fell madly in love.
As a doctorate student, I uncovered the hidden ways in which international education can perpetuate global inequality and structural racism. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, my book based on this research took on a life of its own as schools began buying them in bulk in a scramble to decolonise their curriculum. It has been featured in a textbook for the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, offered in 3,421 schools in 157 different countries and recognised by UWA.
So, when I heard in July that our Vice-Chancellor, Professor Amit Chakma, had approved a proposal that would abolish the Anthropology and Sociology major and hollow out much of the School of Social Sciences, including Asian Studies, I was stunned. The proposal uses the “need for applied social science graduates and researchers” to justify the changes. Knowing how applicable my research is in the world out there, this rationale made no sense to me.
As many have explained, the proposal is not backed by proper evidence. It uses a combination of incorrect and selective data. The Vice-Chancellor appears to have admitted in writing that the proposal’s claim that “enrolments in the Anthropology and Sociology major declined by 77%” over several years was erroneous. Now he seems to be saying that the real figure is 40% while switching to the use of data on “completions of these majors” instead of enrolments. That’s an error of thirty-seven percentage points!
But even the new data is misleading according to a rebuttal to the proposal. The rebuttal claims that the number of completions in a major is not as meaningful as the number of overall student enrolments. It states that Anthropology and Sociology units and major are the third most popular, with nine other majors in the School of Social Sciences having fewer students overall.
Does it make sense to abolish a popular major? Imagine suggesting to your corporate boss to close down a possibly profitable division in the company based on misleading data and errors of this magnitude. You’d be fired.
The rebuttal also states that there has been a lack of transparency in the ‘consultation’ process. Staff were provided 10 working days (later extended by five working days) to submit written feedback. During this time, requests for data sources and methods of calculation seem to have been either ignored or the responses were severely delayed.
Is this how decisions are made at public research universities these days—without transparency and proper evidence?
The past month has been distressing to both staff and students. I heard that some had nightmares, others chronic insomnia. Some have broken down in tears in the middle of their work days. At least one has required medical assistance for stress-related issues.
Postgraduate students feel that little, if any, clarification has been provided on how disruptions to their studies would be mitigated. Students pressed for answers from the Head of School of Social Sciences, Professor Amanda Davies, in an online meeting on 15 July 2021. But they felt as though their concerns were not taken seriously. Students heard the Head of School say words to the effect of ‘if it’s not the meeting you want, you can leave’.
Debbie Chan, a PhD student present at a subsequent face-to-face meeting with the Head of School on 16 July, remembers hearing the Head of School use the word ‘hysterical’ to describe a student’s response to the proposal and tell students to write the proposal if they were not happy with the current one. Ms. Chan is preparing to lodge a formal complaint regarding conduct at these meetings.
According to Senior Honorary Research Fellow and Indonesia expert, Dr. Greg Acciaioli, international postgraduate students have been “most deeply cast into despair”. Should they not be able to complete their degree in their chosen field, some may face “actual sanctions” back home, he wrote.
These are students who have uprooted themselves, their partners, and their children to study in Australia with a specific supervisor in a specific field. Some are on Australian government scholarships designed to foster people-to-people links with our neighbouring countries. Others are from developing countries, sent by their governments as investment towards building their countries.
At the 16 July meeting, a few international students were visibly in tears. They then heard the Head of School speak, instead, about the impact that the process had had on her own family.
Is this how our universities treat their students these days?
My business-minded father would have balked at the proposal. It’s unsound even from a business perspective, let alone from an educational one.