University ‘fudging figures’ on sociology cuts

Course cut critics castigate Australian institution for using data selectively, as sociologists elsewhere watch on nervously

八月 3, 2021
Scoreboard operator dropping numbers as a metaphor for University ‘fudging figures’ on sociology cuts
Source: Getty

The University of Western Australia (UWA) has been accused of fudging figures to justify the axeing of its anthropology and sociology major, amid ongoing protests over proposed job cuts.

Vice-chancellor Amit Chakma has acknowledged an “unintended error” that overstated the collapse in demand for the major, portraying a 40 per cent fall in completions as a 77 per cent crash in enrolments. But while the decline “is less than originally reported, it remains significant”, Professor Chakma told staff. “This does not alter the basis and need for strategic change.”

The major’s “unsustainably low” enrolments had been cited as a justification for a proposed restructure of UWA’s School of Social Sciences. Under plans outlined in a consultation paper, a master’s degree in urban and regional planning would also be jettisoned, while programmes in international relations, Asian studies and human and environmental geography would be pared back.

The restructure would cost 16 academic positions, with research responsibilities removed from another seven.

Critics say UWA has withheld data to support its claims of enrolment decline and budgetary crisis. In a 20-page “rebuttal”, they accuse the university of understating the major’s strengths and exaggerating its shortcomings.

The enrolment calculation error is a “serious misrepresentation” that by itself constitutes a “basis for withdrawal of the proposal”, they say. “It remains unclear why anthropology and sociology has been singled out.”

Charles Fedor, a reporter with the Pelican Magazine student newspaper, said the financial rationale for the proposal was also hard to fathom. He said UWA had never been particularly reliant on international student revenue. Overall enrolments seemed to have increased in any case, with many overseas students maintaining their studies online.

Mr Fedor said Professor Chakma’s claim that the university faced a A$40 million (£21 million) structural deficit was not supported in the institutional accounts. “The fact is that no one’s been able to engage with this at all, because we don’t have the numbers.”

Emails obtained by Pelican reveal similar confusion among members of the academic board. “We don’t even have transparent data as to why certain schools are targeted over others,” one says. “That data is kept by the executive, and the fact that it is not transparently accessible is a major problem.”

While the academic board does not have a formal role in the process until the proposal has been finalised, board chair Raymond da Silva Rosa said the plan had generated “robustly collegial” exchanges. “There’s certainly been a lot of discussion and views for and against.”

This was not unusual for controversial proposals with jobs at stake, he said. “People will have different versions of what constitutes appropriate consultation.”

The uproar suggests a long road ahead for UWA. The social sciences restructure is just one instalment in a A$40 million institutional savings programme that the academic union estimates will leave at least 300 people jobless.

The proposal has also left sociologists elsewhere in the country feeling nervous, with tenure offering little defence against course cuts triggered by pandemic-induced revenue shortages and the disfavouring of humanities in last year’s Jobs-ready Graduates reforms.

In a statement, UWA said it had consulted staff in accordance with its enterprise agreement obligations. All staff had been given the opportunity to submit feedback, which would be “genuinely considered by the university before any final decisions are made”.



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Reader's comments (1)

The purpose of the social sciences is to enhance students understanding of human behavior, help them to commit to live amicably with people despite God given differences, how to maintain such criticality and defuse conflicts all for a better quality of life. If university administrators want to remove social science disciplines from their curriculum then they really do not understand or care about human behaviour. One cannot imagine that this lack of understanding will emerge in any institution of higher learning. A nation's development is reflected in several dimensions economic, political, legal, scientific, religious, cultural and social, scientific and technological. Improvements, growth and advanced in each of these areas depends primarily on how people interact with each other. The nature of such relationships in the past, present and future will always be influenced by gender, ethnic, religious, age group, geographic factors. People's behaviors therefore significantly influence the quality of life in groups, organizations (including schools, colleges and universities),communities and the nation as a whole. The sum total of the outcomes of all of this are different levels of conformity to norms and the emergence of different societal issues that may or may not escalate into delinquency, crime, religious conservatism/ fanaticism, toxic and non-profit organizational cultures, cooperation and conflict. The fact that some universities are contemplating reflects their willingness to deny their own humanity. Please remind yourselves, all university administrators, that Psychology helps us to understand individual behaviours and behavioral changes at the individual level. Sociology helps us to understand group behaviors in every context along with the factors that shape and reshape same across time. Anthropology illuminates the beginnings of what we call culture today. If we do not value people then that might be revealing of a hidden desire/appreciation for people's inhumane expressions and actions in mild and severe ways. That is the beginning of the unravelling of any society and what makes life worth living. This matter therefore does not require a survey of staff and students because all of the preceding are facts of life from time immemorial and have and will always remain so in contemporary times. Please acknowledge your own humanity and keep all social science disciplines and share this enlightenment with all staff and students through the manner in which you teach and conduct research in all social science disciplines. This is a strong and most effective way of improving the quality of life on your campus at UWA and other campuses that may subsequently want to remove any social science discipline