Professor Sue Saltmarsh recently took up the position of HASSE’s Associate Dean – Research. UNE Communications spoke to Professor Saltmarsh about the role and the perspectives she brings to it.

UNE Communications:

Can you talk about the elements of your career that inform your new position here at UNE?

Prof. Saltmarsh:

I’ve worked at quite a number of universities, and most of those in Australia have been multicampus regional universities or universities that have had campuses in regional areas. Most recently, I was employed as Associate Dean of Research and Postgraduate Studies in the Faculty of Education & Human Development at the Education University of Hong Kong.

It was an interesting time to be in Hong Kong. Due to COVID, campuses were closed for quite a period of time so a lot of research projects had to be rethought, and teaching had to go online very quickly. Traditionally Hong Kong doesn’t have a culture of online learning, so seeing how that had to be developed at such short notice, and observing the organisational learning that had to take place so quickly, was really fascinating.

I also appreciated the opportunity to see how complexity and organisational change are addressed in another culture, and in the context of a much more culturally diverse workplace than we sometimes encounter in Australian universities. When you’re in the midst of organisational change, it can be easy to forget that organisational change happens in all universities. For me, seeing how another culture addressed change and managed conflict resolution was really interesting.

My Chinese colleagues took an approach that works toward the best possible outcome, and part of that involved working to keep things from becoming bigger problems than they might have otherwise. Whereas in countries such as Australia, where there’s often a tradition of standing up for a particular viewpoint or outcome, we tend to expect that people will stay on different sides of the fence.

My experience of leadership in Hong Kong was very different. The focus was on ensuring that things didn’t get to a point where everybody disagreed and nobody’s really happy. In my role I worked closely with the university and faculty leadership teams, and it was great to see how people could accept that probably none of us is going to get their way completely, but they could find a way forward that’s perfectly congenial and respectful.

I don’t think you can apply things from one culture to another directly, but that experience in Hong Kong changed my expectations of myself as a worker, and as a member of leadership teams. It’s made me think not just about the best possible outcome for any one party, but the best possible outcome we can work toward as a collective, as part of an ecosystem.

UNE Communications:

The Humanities are under pressure in universities around the world. How do the Humanities disciplines negotiate the political and commercial challenges they face?

Prof. Saltmarsh:

I did my undergraduate in Education and Literature and my PhD in Critical & Cultural Studies, and I’ve been working mostly as a sociologist of education for the last 20-odd years. As the sector has changed so much over that time, I think one thing we probably need to get  better at collectively is to get more savvy about how we promote the value of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

If we look at education, for example, I think it’s fair to say that as a society, we’ve let education become diminished by overly politicised bureaucratic processes, often without changing our general expectations of what education should look like, or could look like, if we did it differently.

A good case in point is literacy rates, which have been declining in Australia since the introduction of neoliberal reform agendas that claimed to bring about improvements. But in reality, imperatives to compete in high-stakes testing have sometimes reduced teaching to excessive paperwork, accountability measures, and teaching to the test.

The result isn’t just declining literacy rates, it’s also student anxiety and teacher burnout – we now have teachers leaving the workforce at record levels, and political leaders who still aren’t listening to education experts and teaching professionals about how to address these problems.

So I would like to see academia get more savvy about the way we lobby collectively, because there’s a disconnect between what we’ve accepted at policy level – or at least unsuccessfully resisted – and what’s now happening in our education systems.

As a society, we’ve collectively agreed that educating future generations is a good thing. But if we keep insisting that we just bore them with stuff we’ve been told will help them do well on NAPLAN tests, then we won’t have a society of readers, thinkers and problem-solvers, we’ll have a society of test-takers.

Another challenge for a number of disciplines is that we’ve tended to hold on very tightly to traditions of practice and research. These traditions have supported some really great work and upheld ethical standards; I’m not dismissive of that. But times have changed, and it can be tempting to tell ourselves that we’re the poor cousin of other fields. Instead, we need to be really savvy about the way we promote the great stuff that we’re doing, and taking on board new ways of doing things that make sense in our current epoch.

It’s about helping people better understand why the Humanities, Arts, Social Sciences and Education matters. Because if we can’t help our society – really feel that and believe that these fields matter – then there’s no way the policy makers society elects are going to understand it.

I very much value knowledge work. It’s the great joy of my life. But we can’t be precious about it: we have to help our society, understand our kids, our neighbours, our friends to value it. And that means living our knowledge in the everyday, and linking our ability to create new knowledge with learning from the knowledge of our colleagues and communities.

I don’t have some kind of magic answer. But I think we sometimes get so demoralized by visionless officialdom that we forget that we have a voice – and we have a pretty big and powerful voice. Humanities, arts, the social sciences, education – these are the fields where we’re asking questions about what it means to be human in today’s world.

It’s a personal commitment to me, too. When I first enrolled in undergraduate study, I had some ideas that turned out to be a good starting point, but I didn’t then understand the real value of university.

Initially I gained basic things, like learning how to interpret and analyse what I’d read, learning how to look at things from a different perspective, learning how to be a more analytical thinker.  But that learning also ended up transforming my ideas about who I was as a person and as a parent. Suddenly all my ideas about what was good for children were being tossed up in the air. It caused me to rethink who I was and what I wanted to stand for in this life.

That, to me, is the gift of education, and it’s the gift that we should be giving to every child in Australia – not focusing on whether they can do well in high-stakes testing.

Over the past few years I’ve been researching domestic and family violence, and the way it intersects with the educational experiences of kids and their parents. We can blame politics for not doing enough about family violence – and there’s a lot of responsibility that rests there – but as societies, I don’t think we have yet got very good at collectively addressing things we know to be incredibly detrimental to children, women and families. We’d rather look away because it’s uncomfortable.

But looking away means we don’t find solutions to those problems, or address the structural inequalities that might create other options. So for me, part of our educational and cultural project should be a focus on what it means to have meaningful, safe lives and hopeful futures. And as a society we need to put that at the center of every single thing we do, whether it’s in a school classroom, or a university lecture theater, and in all the spaces in between.

UNE Communications:

Do you have any early impressions of the role you’ve come into?

Prof. Saltmarsh:

I’ve heard from within UNE, and out in the community, how significant having the university here has been to the life of the region.

I think that’s really important, not just for the good of the community, but for the standing of the university and the responsibility that we have here: we are the example of university life that people see from within our communities. As I meet with people from the Faculty about their ideas for research projects and grants, I’m also seeing the kind of value that’s placed on community engagement and the life of the region. I think that’s really wonderful.