By Charles Fedor
Students were greeted yesterday evening by a curt email from the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Amit Chakma, announcing that the School of Social Sciences restructure will now be officially imposed upon the University. The delayed announcement by the Vice-Chancellor has come as a shock to students and staff, many of whom can see little justification for the University to mutilate the third-most enrolled-in major in the School. This piece will provide a quick summary of the achievements of the #ourUWA movement and the efforts of parties to resist and demand accountability from the University; it will also outline the sheer volume of evidence the University has seemingly ignored in coming to this decision. Finally, this piece will leave you with questions to ask yourself as the year comes to a close.
Vital concessions have been made after community opposition; however, the “war” is not over, even if it seems that University management has finally managed to draw blood.
What did Activist Students Achieve?
Before we get into the grim and grave news surrounding this restructure, I thought it would be best to acknowledge the victories that have been achieved this year as they can so easily be overlooked. These are listed below:
- The University planned to ram this restructure through in the First-Semester holidays, ready for adoption in 2022. The Vice-Chancellor now begrudgingly admits that this is impossible to achieve. This has bought a whole year of anthropology and sociology study for students rushing to finish their degree before it disappears.
- The University accepted it cannot abolish the discipline of Anthropology and Sociology in its entirety. As a result of opposition and pressure, the University could only abolish Sociology. This is a massive win that cannot be overstated – a major was saved through protest and public pressure.
- More Schools cannot be restructured until 2022. This buys students in other Schools a year of study and is particularly crucial for those on the cusp of finishing their degree.
This is unambiguous proof that when students work together with staff and engage in protest and public pressure real change can be achieved.
This restructure can be linked to an ongoing systemic failure by the Senate to be transparent and actively challenge a sitting Vice-Chancellor. According to Vice-Chancellor Chakma, this restructure was necessary due to excessive spending that put the University in a ‘structure deficit’. The Vice-Chancellor has still not provided any data to the University community on this supposed structural deficit. Regardless, it is either the failure of the Senate or the perceived evasiveness or deception of the Vice-Chancellor that has led to this moment and certainly warrants further investigation.
Student representatives’ perceived collaborationist approach with these University management decisions has also played a role in exacerbating student outrage. As the Ludwig Files note, student impacts and the Guild President were considered by management to be inconsequential stakeholders. Many students may now agree, as various student representatives were perceived to be more enthusiastic in their support of a chilli festival than in supporting the campaign to protect students and staff. It is now official that almost 200 students’ lives have been upended and their studies destroyed by this restructure. A small victory based on protests and critical news coverage has been gained and we should not lose sight of this. However, while Anthropology students are being allowed, in the words of the Vice-Chancellor, “to complete their current course”, if there are only two people left to coordinate an entire degree achieving a quality education becomes close to impossible.
Evidence that was revealed during the Fair Work Commission hearing and through Pelican investigations has been summarised below:
- UWA Humanities and Social Sciences is ranked 2nd in satisfaction and employment outcomes in the Group of Eight.
- Professor Davies used data that was specifically incomplete to justify the restructure; further, that the drop in Anthropology and Sociology enrolments was actually only 8.6%. Despite greater drops in Archaeology (50%) and Geography (20%), Anthropology and Sociology was specifically targeted.
- A number of staff at UWA came up with an alternative proposal that was rejected out of hand by Professor Davies as it did not address “the fiscal issue” satisfactorily. This is despite Professor Davies not revealing the fiscal issue to any staff in specific terms.
- The dominant theme of feedback on the proposal was cutting executive salaries, which was not actioned or considered.
- A number of Anthropology and Sociology professors have just received various awards and promotions including:
- Associate Professor Martin Forsey receiving the Teaching Excellence Award from the School of Social Science
- Professor Farida Fozdar being promoted to full Professor
- Professor Loretta Baldassar being named the top researcher in her field by The Australian’s Research Magazine. Professor Baldassar has been acknowledged by the University for “world class research”.
- Serious questions remain over conflicts of interest in which Professor Davies and her discipline stand to benefit handsomely from the restructure.
- The proposed new Anthropology major will be constituted and run by an under-resourced staff of two people and its content is subject to “collaboration” with Geography and Archaeology.
- An overwhelming majority of staff in the disciplines of Anthropology and Sociology, Archaeology (including Forensic Anthropology), Asian Studies, Linguistics, Politics and International Relations, and Media and Communication rejected the proposal. They were cited in evidence to the Commision, noting:
- It is “not our vision” of the school;
- That the proposal “did not consult with or involve any staff or students”;
- That “The case for closing Anthropology and Sociology majors is unsubstantiated and damaging”;
- That prioritising only applied and local research cancels UWA’s status as sole WA Group of Eight University;
- Perhaps most damaging of all, the indictment that “The lack of consultation is antithetical to the ethics of justice and equity instilled in students.”
The decision of the Commissioner has come down against staff and students of the University. It raises a number of concerns and precedents, specifically that the Commissioner does not believe information or accurate information has to be given to staff members during restructures or redundancies, as long as a workplace agreement has not technically been breached. This will only embolden UWA and other workplaces to suffocate staff challenges by providing false or no information at all, working within the ‘letter of the law’. In addition, it indicates that the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement that UWA staff have signed is not nearly as strong as it needs to be, and has permitted this alleged duplicity.
A special acknowledgement must be given to Associate Professor Martin Forsey and Professor Farida Fozdar for attempting to hold the University to account through the Fair Work Commission. It takes principles, courage, and a belief in the value of their University to stand up in court and fight for students, and their fellow staff. Students everywhere owe a debt of gratitude to them for speaking truth to power and attempting to challenge a blatantly savage restructure. It was telling that the Fair Work Commission ran out of chairs as students and staff flooded in to stand in real solidarity with them.
- Has the Senate or Academic Board voted on this proposal and, if so, who voted for this?
- Where are the student representatives standing in solidarity?
- What will the University look like after it has aggressively restructured six more Schools with every major in those Schools potentially at risk? Note that, due to a lack of transparency, it is unclear which Schools are under threat.
- What happens to my major now?
- Did you do all that you could to help your students and peers?
- What can you do next year when more cuts inevitably come?
- Is this a University that you are proud to be a member of?
Join the Education Action Network to find out what will happen to your major and demand that your student representatives do something other than receiving certificates from the Senate for their service. People usually say “it is always darkest before the dawn”. However, with the latest blow from the University, it seems like this decision and more will cast a long shadow beyond this year.
Sub-Editor’s Note: I just wish to acknowledge the hurt, frustration, and disbelief that Anthropology and Sociology staff and students feel at this moment. This is, in my opinion, a reprehensible and cruel act committed by the University. A community can be judged only by how they treat those in trouble, and how it lives up to the principles of justice and equity that we so frequently champion. In this circumstance many members fell well below these expectations. It is a failure of senior management and representatives who have betrayed your trust. Please take care of yourselves, reach out to those you care for, and know that there are still people at the University who will not stop fighting for you.