Words by Jelena Kovacevic

Over the last few years, UWA has experienced a restructuring of the social sciences. In turn, student protests against these actions have been profound and powerful. Yet, what a lot of students will not know is that this has long been in the making. In 2015, the termination of three majors in the social sciences field- European studies, medieval history and gender studies (the latter having been reintroduced in 2020) caused severe upset. Taking into consideration the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated struggles with staff illnesses, the situation for students and staff in the social sciences has only worsened. The method of protest in 2015 was peaceful- an expression of their distaste for the outcome was doodled on post-it notes in the hallway. The subsequent protests of 2021 following the phasing out of Anthropology & Sociology were louder and angrier. For the small number of students who have witnessed both events in 2015 and 2021, they continue to be more motivated to take action. Having spoken with two PhD students in the Arts, I see that their sentiments towards the gradual fraying of their chosen study are profound.   

I sent two PhD students a series of questions regarding their chosen research and gave them several weeks to respond. The article will share the answers they sent me. They both wished to remain anonymous. One of them also declined to answer the first two questions concerning their research discipline. The first respondent is marked by (A), whilst the second is (B).  

  

Firstly, what area of research are you working on?  

A.) I am in the Media and Communications Discipline within the School of Social Sciences.  

  

What is your PhD project about?  

A.) I look at policies related to culture and the arts in Perth, WA.   

  

Were your expectations about your studies different to how it has turned out?  

A.) The lack of support offered by the University and the PSA (Postgraduate Students Association) has been disappointing. In our faculty, we all work very independently, so there is little sense of community within our School. It is up to the students to create their own community and culture and self-manage issues like isolation, poor mental health, and general Higher Degree Research (HDR) struggles.   

B.) Yes, my expectations for my doctoral degree have definitely been unmet. Most significantly, I expected the university to be able to provide me with the supervisors that I had chosen to be involved in my project until its completion. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened due to the cuts that ravaged the School of Social Sciences. A naïve expectation on my part was that the university valued quality research that informs and improves society – it clearly doesn’t. If it did, it wouldn’t have proposed or implemented the cuts (not only to my department but all impacted departments).  

  

How have the cuts in your department impacted your research?  

A.) One of my supervisors lost his research allocation in the shuffle and left UWA. However, I have been fortunate in that he prioritised my project in his last few months at UWA and has been able to fast-track my submission while he is still here. I am luckier than most and acknowledge that this has not been the experience of most students in a similar predicament.   

B.) The cuts have impacted my research, as well as everyone else’s in my department. My department has effectively been pillaged of its ability to conduct research because of the removal of research-orientated employment positions. As a result, the amount of research generated in the future will be minimal (if any is generated at all). This impacts the reputation of my department in the wider world of academia. It’s devastating, as my department produces incredibly valuable research work. I’m still quite shocked that UWA would knowingly cut departments with research prestige. They may have made some “savings” by doing so now, but I have no doubt that by destroying the competitive research departments (which make UWA a tertiary institution appealing to potential staff and undergraduate/postgraduate students) UWA’s money-making ability in the future will suffer.  

In terms of my own research, the cuts have certainly affected the overall quality of my research, the research opportunities I could receive, and even my ability to secure an academic job in the future. A successful career in academia is not only dependent on the calibre of your research (i.e., the extent of its quality, rigour and social/cultural importance) but also the reputation of where you received your doctorate. As my department has now been deprived almost entirely of any reasonable research opportunities for staff, and I’m dealing with deeply disruptive changes to my supervision team (which has an impact on the quality of my dissertation, as it may not be as informed by experts in my field as it needs to be), my chances of securing a job in academia have become rather perilous. This is now the case for every postgraduate student within the School of Social Sciences. It’s tragic, really. A promising group of researchers who could change the world have had their ability to do so severely compromised, and the people who made these changes will avoid any accountability.  

  

  

Do you believe that further changes would be detrimental to your area of study?  

A.) The erosion of our discipline, particularly in terms of our research capabilities, is a disgrace. The knowledge and research produced in Media and Communications are strongly aligned with public interests, as well as the preservation of critical thinking, democracy, and civic engagement. In an era where deep, nuanced understandings of how society and culture function are more important and relevant than ever, the work produced by social scientists is paramount.   

B.) It depends on the nature of the changes. Honestly, it’s difficult to comprehend the state of the department as “worsening” any further. As I said, my department’s research is already on its deathbed, and this is the ultimate detriment to my area of study. Any changes or means designed to restore the research orientation of my department (without overburdening the already significant workloads of staff) would be welcomed.  

  

  

What would you change to make your studies more efficient? Do you need more staff or better infrastructure?  

A.) The staff is what makes this University work and the reason HDR students can make quality contributions to their fields of research. The supervisor-student relationship often goes beyond supervision. Supervisors are mentors who guide us through the research journey and help us make the next steps in our careers. During the isolation and uncertainty of COVID-19, supervisors provided disciplinary expertise and valuable insight for many whose projects had to adapt quickly to changing circumstances. Reassigning HDR students’ supervisors without the specific knowledge and skill set required for their individual projects impacts not only the quality but also the timelines in which these projects will be able to be completed. This is not only a GRS concern but a concern of student wellbeing, student finances, and cost to the university.   

Staff are also core to quality teaching. The removal of research-funded teaching staff, effective across entire disciplines, also impacts the quality and relevance of ideas in the classroom. Without staff who are actively engaged in their disciplinary field, the university will fall behind not only in its responsibilities to foster an engaging classroom environment and achieve student satisfaction but also in producing critical and relevant research.  

  

B: My department desperately required more staff and infrastructure before the cuts to the School of Social Sciences were made, so I would say that for my studies to become more efficient, a grand reversal of the cuts in addition to more invigorating and revitalising changes (i.e., more staff, more research-positions, and opportunities) would be necessary. Of course, this also extends to other parts of the university, such as the UWA Graduate Research School. They are clearly understaffed and yet are expected to process, guide, educate and care for all UWA’s research-based students – that is a lot of students to look after with such a small team! Overall, to make my studies more efficient, as well as anybody else who is enrolled in, or wants to pursue postgraduate study in the future, UWA would have to commit to healthy, stimulating changes in Schools. 

  

  

Q7. Any further comments?   

B: I believe that young people should be infuriated over the cuts that UWA has made and will continue to make. Millennials and GenZs are already facing a lifetime of considerable struggle due to rising wealth inequality, employment precarity, a continuing housing crisis, etc., and our education is no different. If you wish to pursue tertiary education, then you should be educated and guided by knowledgeable and passionate experts in your field of interest and treated as an individual who can bring great value to our society – whether you are a nurse, an engineer, a social scientist, or a playwright. Instead, UWA, other tertiary institutions, and the Australian government are more than happy to push young people to get a pricey yet staggeringly emaciated education where they are perceived as just another source of revenue. They do not see young people as individuals who, with just the right support, guidance and nurture as they progress through their studies, could change the world for the better. Above all, young people should be irate that the people who make these decisions, tertiary education and beyond, benefitted from opportunities (i.e., attending university for free, being educated by experts actively conducting research) that they actively deem worthy of depriving younger generations of. It is simply not fair.  

 

These students are undoubtedly passionate about their field of study. They believe in the importance and value of UWA staff in contributing to research and educating future generations of students. The changes experienced by students in the social sciences are plainly evident, yet their perseverance and passion for their studies should be recognised and commended. These students demonstrate the necessity of high-quality education at one of Australia’s best universities. 

 

References: 

https://www.smh.com.au/opinion/comment-why-uwas-cuts-to-its-arts-degree-majors-are-a-big-deal-20150806-gisvl2.html 

By Pelican Magazine

Pelican is one of the oldest student publications in Australia and the only independent paper at UWA. If you enjoy writing, then Pelican is the place for you! We print six themed issues a year, and run a stream of online content.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *