APSA Submission to State of the Social Sciences 2021 Discussion Paper

18 March, 2021

Response to Survey questions  

Q1. If you are currently studying a social science discipline, how optimist or pessimistic are you about your career prospects?

As educators of undergraduate and postgraduate university students and postgraduate researchers, we are conscious of a level of anxiety amongst our current cohorts. This pertains particularly to those hoping for a career in academia. The economic conditions following the pandemic, coupled with the Government’s lack of support for social sciences and humanities, manifest in the recent reforms to higher education combine to create considerable disquiet about current and future employment in academia. While we have not detected any decline in enthusiasm for studying Political Studies at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, the Government’s reforms to Higher Education funding are likely to impact negatively over the longer term.

Q 2. What unique skills and capabilities do social science graduates bring to the wider economy?

Political Studies graduates bring important analytical skills and capabilities to the economy and society. Their training requires them to take a systematic and informed approach to understanding the world we live in and the role of politics in shaping that world. This application of critical thinking and methodological rigour (across the whole range of methods), coupled with the ability to think about issues from multiple perspectives, means Political Studies graduates are well-equipped to solve problems in a heterogeneous, complex, and uncertain global economic environment. Political Studies graduates develop transferable skills relevant to a range of roles including:

  • Foreign & international affairs
    • Secondary and Tertiary education
    • Intelligence and security
    • Journalism & the media
    • Government organisations (local, state, national & international)
    • Civil society organisations
    • Business
    • Policy advocacy
    • Policy research
    • Policy design & analysis
    • Political and social research
    • Political advisors
    • Politics
    • Public communication
    • Public relations & lobbying
    • Public service
    • Speech-writing


Q 3. Are there current or recent examples of social science research making an impact in policy or society that we might draw out in this report?

Political Studies has a long tradition of making an impact in Australia. In relation to education, the establishment of ANZSOG more than a decade ago represented a major shift in the post-experience education of mid- senior level public servants across Australia and New Zealand. ANZSOG represents an important example of a successful government/university collaboration, which has expanded its public administration and management curriculum in recent years to include a focus on First Nations’ expertise and experience.

Political Studies is also integral to a number of new institutional arrangements in the last decade designed specifically to influence policy making and practice. This includes the establishment of:  the Melbourne School of Government in 2013; the University of Sydney Policy Lab; and the Institute for Public Policy collaboration between the University of Sydney, Western Sydney University and the University of Technology Sydney advising the NSW Government, and the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Governance as the world-leading centre for the study of democratic theory and practices.

Q 4. How optimistic or pessimistic do you feel about the future for the social sciences? What are the key factors informing your view?

We are in no doubt about the importance of a future for Political Studies. The pandemic has demonstrated the critical importance of sound political decision making and analysis, based on expertise, along with the devastating consequences of poor leadership and political astuteness. It has highlighted the vital importance and, in some cases, the fragility of our political institutions at all levels from the local to the global, and drawn attention to the need for solid political understanding and awareness in order to effect positive change.

However, we are extremely concerned about the capacity of Political Studies in Australia to continue to provide the range and quality of education and research to future generations. Government reforms over at least the past decade have demonstrated how undervalued Political Studies is across the political spectrum. Consequently, Political Studies departments have declined in size and status at many if not most universities, and in some cases have disappeared altogether.

Q5. What do you see as the three biggest challenges and opportunities for the social sciences (as a whole or within your discipline) over the next five to ten years? How can we address the challenges and harness the opportunities?

The three biggest challenges and opportunities for Political Studies over the next 5-10 years are:

  • Taking full account of the experience, knowledges, and expertise of First Nations’ people and reflecting this in our curricula, research, hiring, and recruitment.
  • Improving the engagement between Political Studies and other disciplines in pursuit of more effective interdisciplinary working to address major challenges. This includes STEM as well as HASS disciplines.
  • Nurturing the next generation of Political Studies experts to contribute productively to all sectors of society through linking Political Studies research findings to contemporary politics/policy problems. This will underline and reinforce our relevance to the world outside academia, including in our region.

Q6. What are the biggest challenges Australian society will face in the next five to ten years? What role will social science knowledge and expertise play in resolving these challenges?


  1. Climate change
  2. Rising inequality
  3. Creating the foundations for more just relations between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the Australian state
  4. Immigration
  5. Addressing coercive/intimate partner violence of all types.
  6. Quality of Australian democracy (in particular in the face of the continuing threat of far-right and white supremacist groups and the misinformation and lies peddled by conspiracy theorists).
  7. The risk of instability in the Asia Pacific region and Australia’s place within this changing context both regionally and globally

How Political Studies can help meet these challenges:

  • Enabling effective research translation and communication to inform and influence the political direction of key debates, including climate change, migration, security studies, diplomacy and inequality
  • Taking full account of the experience, knowledge, and expertise of First Nations’ people and reflecting this in our curricula, research, hiring, and recruitment.  

Questions specific to the content presented in this discussion paper


Q9. Is ’40:40:20’ a viable academic workload model for Australian social sciences in the future? What changes in the structure of academic employment would help to optimize social science research and teaching in universities?

The 40:40:20 academic workload model is probably a romantic ideal for many at work in the profession today, particularly outside of the G8 universities. Underfunding and the introduction of ‘business’ disciplines into the management of academic workloads has meant that workload allocation models do not reflect the reality of the resources required to perform academic functions well, and the erosion of professional staff support has meant academics spend much more time on administration than they used to. Added to this is the additional regulatory burden that universities are bearing. Structural reform is probably required. However, this reform should be predicated on the basis that academic excellence is assessed in the round, i.e. it requires research and teaching. The move towards ‘research only’ and ‘teaching only’ positions has diminished the value attached to teaching and created a research elite whose privilege has become embedded.

Q 10. What are the critical challenges in the social science academic workforce?

The Political Studies academic workforce is diverse, but that diversity is not replicated at all levels and is not representative of First Nations people. At present the academic workforce is perceived as too white and male. APSA took the important step many years ago of alternating the Presidency of the Association between male and female, which has improved the visibility of senior women to the community. However, a great deal more remains to be done.

Q 11. What are the key challenges faced by early and mid-career academics in their career progression? Are the different compared to other disciplines? What strategies might support them?

Early/mid-career Political Studies academics experience many of the same challenges as all others at those stages of their careers. The lack of permanent positions means that it can be many years before early career scholars can find a secure university home. The result has been high levels of casualisation at Australian universities and increased vulnerability of casual scholars to exploitation and endemic insecurity. The decision to have children continues to hamper women in their career, though some universities have made important strides to address this by offering parental leave to both parents, changing their promotion criteria, and providing additional support to women returning to work.

The pressure to publish early and often combined with the demands to secure research funds (which are increasingly scarce), take on significant teaching loads, and be active in the media, is taking its toll on early career researchers in particular. The rise of teaching only contracts and having to work across multiple institutions on several casual contracts to make ends meet has a profound negative impact on colleagues’ ability to plan and prepare for a career. In addition, the metrics developed by universities to judge research and teaching performance can be very damaging for individuals as the measures only speak tangentially, if at all, to the quality of the research output or the teaching practices.

With regards to research performance, the trend has been to emphasise quantity over quality by specifying a minimum number of publications per year averaged over a rolling three-year period, regardless of discipline. For a Level E in some universities the research output target can be set from 4 to 8 publications per year, a Level D from 3 to 6, and a Level C from 2 to 4. This way of measuring the output performance of individual academics is taken by universities to be a reasonable basis to set research performance benchmarks that can be applied regardless of research area or discipline. This poses significant challenges for academics working in the Social Sciences (and the Humanities) where research and publishing norms can differ from those in the STEM areas.

For example, a scholar working in the Social Sciences where sole authored or two-authored papers predominate faces quite different challenges to a scholar working in say microbiology or health or biochemistry where multi-authored papers of five or more are the norm. A sole or two-authored paper represents a far different investment of time and labour on the part of the academic researcher. Placing undue emphasis on the number of outputs per year generates significant pressures for researchers, particularly early career researchers, to seek out high acceptance rate journals in their fields, to the detriment of the quality of the work and hence diminishing the potential value of its contribution to the wider society.

The teaching metrics need to be shifted away from numericising student evaluation scores (derived through relatively crude processes which reflect student perceptions rather than evaluate specific teaching practices). In sum, we need to rethink the multiple pressures that we are putting on scholars, focusing on the production of high-quality work at an appropriate pace, and excellent teaching.

Any strategies to support early and mid-career scholars should work on the basis that the problem is not with them, ie they do not need to be mentored or changed to fit. Rather the problem is with our institutions and social system. It is these that need to be changed. In the meantime efforts should be expended to sponsor and promote early and mid-career researchers by senior faculty.

Q 12. What are the barriers or enablers to increased participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other minority groups in the academic workforce? Are they different compared to other disciplines? What strategies might support them?

Across the sector, the Second Annual Report of the Universities Australia Indigenous strategy indicates that in 2018 there were 1484 Indigenous Australian staff employed by Universities. A third of these staff are in academic roles. However, we have limited research specific to the social sciences, making it difficult to properly understand the barriers and enablers to increasing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation in the social science academic workforce. Better information is particularly needed about existing Indigenous social science graduates and their professional occupations (inside and outside of the academy). We also need to improve our understanding of Indigenous students’ future aspirations of increasing numbers of Indigenous tertiary graduates so that we might more effectively communicate how the social sciences can help realise those aspirations.

We do know that there are rapidly increasing numbers of Indigenous students, approximately half of whom study in the social sciences (see p. 14 SSS Discussion Paper). We also know that at 1% of the overall student population, there is significant scope to increase these numbers further. We have a large enough foundation upon which to strengthen the graduate research pipeline for those who wish to have academic careers. Alongside strengthening the graduate research pipeline, institutional change within Universities will also be necessary in order to ensure workplaces are ready to support and nurture Indigenous academic talent.

The Australian Political Studies Association committed in 2018 to waiving membership fees for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members. This was not necessarily done because the cost was understood to be prohibitive, but rather as a signal of our commitment to increasing Indigenous membership in the association. In 2019, the First Peoples Politics Forum was formed and the Chair (Assoc. Prof. Sana Nakata, Torres Strait Islander) became a member of the APSA Executive. These are small initiatives that work to create and hold space for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander graduates and researchers to exchange ideas, experiences, and network into the broader non-Indigenous academy including through funded workshops. Our view is that disciplinary associations have unique (though limited) capacity to effect cross-institutional and nationwide support, which is important in a context where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics remain very few.

Q 13. What impact has COVID-19 had on the social science academic workforce and institutions?

COVID-19 has impacted the Political Studies workforce in the same way that it has other social sciences. There has been a significant reduction in the availability of casual work, cuts in academic staffing and increased use of teaching only contracts (which risk the discipline’s research standing internationally). We are alert to the probability of cuts in Political Studies‘ programs and courses despite continuing strong demand and the adverse impact of this on student/staff ratios. There is an opportunity for universities to rethink their approach to casualization and precarious work, and we would support positive measures to achieve that. However, we are also conscious of the importance of some casual work to HDR students as part of their academic training.

Q 14.  Are you concerned about the impact of the Job-Ready Graduates legislation on the social sciences? What do you anticipate the impacts (positive or negative) will be?

There is always scope to adapt the curriculum so as to enhance the range of skills and capabilities that students achieve through their programs of study. However, it is unlikely that ‘job-ready’ graduates is a realistic or desirable prospect given the changing nature of the world of work.

Q 15. What challenges do social science graduates face in transitioning to employment? Are they different compared to other disciplines? What strategies might support them?

Political Studies graduates are well equipped to transition to the workplace. The critical analytical, organisational and people skills, in addition to their political skills, equips them well to navigate new organisations. Postgraduate coursework programs are particularly valuable in developing the skills and capabilities of those new to work, mid-career, and at senior levels.

Research funding and infrastructure

Q 16. What are the barriers to securing research funding in the social sciences?

The barriers to Political Studies scholars’ securing research funding are linked to the ways in which funding, specifically ARC funding is allocated. The emphasis on track-record is problematic for scholars who may not be aligned with seasoned grant getters. The current process also militates against scholars using ARC funding support to shift their research focus. There is too much emphasis on the track record being tied tightly to the proposed field of enquiry rather than on what a scholar’s track record might indicate about their capacity/ability to undertake a proposed research project successfully. The success rates and the perception that the peer review process serves particular kinds of academics, ie those with traditional careers and focused on core disciplines, makes it more difficult for researchers to continue to persist in applying. The prestige associated with ARC funding, along with it being almost a requirement for promotion in some institutions, means that many scholars will continue to apply even though their chances of securing funding would be improved by applying to other types of funding bodies. Streamlining the application process for ARC funding so that unviable projects are identified early and before the full application stage is one way of reducing the burden on academics. Reconsidering the number of applications that an individual can make during any given year could help reduce the pressure on applicants and reviewers. The amount of ‘voluntary’ work that academics undertake as part of the reviewing process, for research grants and in relation to peer-reviewing articles, is significant.

Q 17. Is the current research infrastructure fit for purpose? If no, what do you feel would serve you the best?

The existing infrastructure for research is important but could be augmented by specific funding focused on supporting the career development of scholars in Political Studies, eg the development of teaching centres of excellence that focus on particular areas of theory, method, or translation. More (infrastructure) funding focus on creating and sustaining networks across institutions that promote collaboration and not competition between them would also help build our capacity.

Training and education

Q 19. Where do you see the biggest challenges and opportunities for social science education over the coming years?

  • The increasing number of students per staff, and the risk to quality
  • The need to adapt to digital delivery and to create a student experience that is equal to an on campus experience and sensitive to the unequal situations in which students find themselves in relation to online learning
  • The need to continue to attract a diverse student cohort at all levels to ensure that the experience of studying Political Studies is informed by a variety of perspectives and peer to peer learning.

Q 20. Why do you think the number of social science doctoral students has remained near static over the last decade, while significantly increasing in STEM and health sciences?

One explanation may be that Political Studies HDRs continue to be independent scholars keen to pursue their own area of enquiry. There are still relatively few ‘lab’ type HDR programs where students are recruited to support the development of established lines of enquiry under the guidance of senior professorial staff. Whether Political Studies HDR should follow this template is debatable but there may be some room for developing pathways to HDR study beyond individual enquiry, eg the Sir Roland Wilson Foundation scholarships, which support senior members of the  APS in HDR study with a view to them taking their learning back into the APS (https://srwfoundation.anu.edu.au/ ).

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