Western Australian university press slated for closure

Outrage over move to replace in-house publishing with ‘open and digitised access to information’

November 8, 2019
Pile of books falling over
Source: iStock

Australia’s second-oldest university press faces the axe, with the University of Western Australia (UWA) advising staff of a “progressive close-down” of its in-house publisher.

In a “proposal for change” circulated to staff, the university said that UWA Publishing would be closed “in its current form” from the end of November. The move would be in line with a “strategic vision to provide open and digitised access to information and knowledge in…support of the university’s academic writing and research”, the memo says.

“Currently, only a small proportion of the authors and content published by UWA Publishing relate directly to the university and its work.”

The memo suggests that the press’ existing commitments will be honoured, authors will still earn royalties and access to “back catalogues” will be maintained. It commits to consulting the affected staff, who are slated to lose their jobs, before making a “definite decision”.  

The news has unleashed a social media storm reminiscent of the outrage that greeted the University of Melbourne’s decision to refocus Melbourne University Press – whose output of popular non-fiction had made it a household name – on purely academic publishing.

“Short-sighted in the extreme from UWA,” tweeted author and editor Sarah Holland-Batt. “I’m very sad for the wonderful folks at UWA Publishing, especially the indefatigable [director] Terri-Ann White, who has put her heart and soul into the press.”

In an online petition that rapidly garnered 2,500 signatures, poet Melinda Smith reeled off a list of UWA Publishing’s recent award-winning titles. She highlighted its publication of stories in the Indigenous Noongar language and its uncovering of “crucial new voices” in poetry.

“The decision…will have a devastating impact not just at UWA, not even just in the state, but nationally,” the petition says. “It will undo years of publishing innovation and stunt the current flourishing of creativity in our country’s literature.”

In a statement issued late on 8 November, UWA appeared to tone down the proposal. It said UWA Publishing was a “longstanding part” of the university and would “continue as such”.

“UWA is looking to evolve current operations to broaden publishing reach and impact and boost accessibility,” the statement says. “The proposal to wind down the present form of UWA Publishing will help to guarantee modern university publishing into the future.

“Should the proposal proceed…UWA will look at ways to continue the proud tradition of contributing to our cultural foundations.”

The university’s move comes as in-house presses around the world face pressure over their financial viability. In May, Stanford University overturned an earlier decision to stop subsidising its book publishing division following warnings that the move would “cripple the press”.

UWA’s action also reflects the erosion of university efforts in literature and the arts. Creative arts and writing’s share of Australia’s national research output has declined by 17 per cent over six years, according to Excellence in Research for Australia assessment reports. Staff numbers in the field have declined by 13 per cent over the same period.

The University of Sydney has attracted criticism over its recent cessation of funding for its 57 year-old chair of Australian literature, the oldest position of its type in the country.

“The decision…will have grave consequences for the vitality of Australian literature…and the esteem with which it is held in Australia and internationally,” the Australian Universities Heads of English protested.

A Sydney spokeswoman said the university was integrating Australian content throughout its curriculum. “[This] places Australia in a wider international context [and] means hundreds of our students are studying rich content about Australia every year,” she said.

“We remain deeply committed to research and teaching in…Australian literature and have a number of internationally renowned scholars working in the field. We’re also seeking to secure external funding for an endowed chair.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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