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Chair's Response to Diverse Voices Feedback
Dear PSA Member,
The Political Studies Association has a long (72 years and counting), and in many respects a distinguished, history. But there are also parts of our history that are not so great. It took well over half its existence for the association to have its first female Chair; for the majority of its history this has been an organisation mainly of, and run by, white men.
There have been considerable improvements in the diversity of those who serve and lead the PSA. For example, at the quarterly meetings of the PSA Senior Leadership Team during the last two years – meetings attended by the CEO, Chair, Vice-Chair, Honorary Secretary and Honorary Treasurer – I have been the only man present; that would have been unthinkable even twenty years ago. The current Executive Committee (EC) is majority female, and the most diverse in the history of the PSA to date. But we are not complacent. We recognise that substantial problems of under-representation and marginalisation, particularly for minority ethnic and women scholars of colour, remain in academia, the social sciences, and our discipline in particular. At senior levels that under-representation is even more pronounced.
Given this context, it is greatly to the credit of my predecessor as PSA Chair that she led the way with an initiative for the PSA to do more in this area. Called Diverse Voices (DV), the proposal was to offer support to BAME PhD students through partial scholarships. A fund-raising target of £250,000 was set. The minutes of the October 2018 PSA EC meeting, under ‘PhD Scholarship Fund’, noted that “The initial fundraising target of £250,000+ would cover partial scholarships. If more funds are raised, the PSA could move to full-time scholarships”; those minutes also “underlined the need to put together a clear plan to raise these funds”. At the following meeting, in January 2019, the EC minutes (under the heading ‘Diverse Voices’) reiterated that “The target for the fundraising campaign is £250k.” £250,000 is a realistic figure to launch the sort of scheme originally envisaged.
When I applied to become PSA Chair in November 2019 I highlighted Diversity as one of my three core priorities, and made clear in my application letter my commitment to working with PSA colleagues to deliver the DV scheme. However, when my term as Chair began it rapidly became evident that there had been very limited progress on DV fundraising, and there was little proper financial planning in place for the initiative. This situation raised obvious concerns about how the scheme could be sustainable in the context of the significant downwards trend in the PSA’s publishing income. The EC has therefore had to consider how best to address this issue, and how to make the best use of the £30,000 designated fund that the PSA’s trustees have set up to kick off the programme.
Members will understand that funding PhD students can consume quite large amounts of money (large in the context of a relatively small charity like the PSA). Fully funding one PhD student on the standard 1+3 model consumes (on ESRC 2021/22 figures) just over £85,000. A scheme to fund only one additional PhD student every year, even if constructed on a part-funding basis in partnership with others, would soon mean a substantial additional financial commitment for the PSA – which would have to be met from a diminishing resource base. Over ninety percent of the PSA’s income currently comes from the publishing contract for our journals. Due to Open Access-related changes to the journal landscape that are sector-wide, our income has already fallen twenty percent compared to 2020 levels; external advice we have received is that we should plan on the basis of this falling to around fifty percent of 2020 levels by 2027.
After numerous discussions within the EC, and substantial external consultations, we reluctantly decided that we could not possibly proceed with the DV scheme as it had been originally conceived. The most obvious course of action at this point would have been simply to abolish the initiative. Recognising the importance of the problem that DV was responding to, we did not wish to do that. But it was clear that, if we focused our actions in this area solely around financial support, we would only be able to help a very small number of students and probably for a very small number of years. There has been a shared determination across the EC not to launch any scheme that was not financially sustainable. Given the importance and magnitude of the challenge to create a more diverse discipline, it would be wholly unforgivable to launch, with fanfare, a scheme that would likely have to be wound up by our successors in 2-3 years’ time. It would also be fundamentally at odds with the legal duties of charitable trustees for the EC to launch a scheme that we knew was not financially sustainable. We want to develop a programme of actions that is sustainable and can be developed and enhanced over time.
We have sought, therefore, to develop a programme that approaches the problem that the original DV scheme sought to address from a somewhat different angle. The first stage of that is our recently launched Diverse Voices Scholarships scheme: this will allow us to help several students a year. The Scholarships will provide a modest amount of additional finance for the students, but are mainly about offering a sustained programme of professional development and socialisation over the year during which the scholarship will be held. We then intend to roll out further elements of the DV programme, which currently include a small research grants scheme plus some prizes to showcase outstanding work in the area. All aspects of the DV programme will utilise some money, but they are primarily based on things that the PSA has plenty of – people, networks, the ability to engage in profile-raising etc – rather than money, of which we have limited amounts that are currently falling year on year. We aim to develop a programme of activities that can be refined and developed further in the future, is sustainable, and will become one of core areas of PSA activity for the long-term. Our ultimate aim is to contribute to changing the culture of the academic profession within our discipline. And we very much want our entire association to work with us to support this.
If substantial fees-and-maintenance funding of PhDs students is ever to become part of the DV programme of actions, it is clear that we will need some source of external funding to provide the vast majority of the funds. We will be in a much better position to work with partners and attract such funding if we have an established record of activity in this area. At present we have none.
A great deal of time and effort has been put in, by PSA staff, trustees, and our EDI Working Group, on developing our work in this area. It was therefore both surprising and disappointing that the launch of the first element of DV was followed by a petition, circulated shortly before the recent PSA conference. I am pleased that many people care enough about the issue to want us to go further. My principal disappointment is that there are some important inaccuracies in the petition, such that many colleagues who will have signed it in good faith have been significantly misinformed.
The current PSA Executive Committee have attempted to set the record straight on some of the details of the petition here. The general impression created by the petition – that the PSA Executive is sitting on a large sum of money, potentially available to be spent on DV, and has chosen not to do so or at least has chosen to do the absolute minimum possible – is also very misleading.
There is nothing wrong at all with member scrutiny, questioning and even criticism of the PSA’s actions. My fellow trustees and I want all members to feel that they can approach us with ideas, questions or feedback on any aspects of the PSA’s work. Regarding the DV programme – I have little doubt that we will not get everything right straight away, and we will need input from many of our members as we seek to develop it. It is clear that greater diversity is a core value shared by many PSA members, who also wish to see the PSA playing its part in promoting that. So do I. The trustees and I very much hope that you will support the DV programme: initially by helping us reach eligible PhD candidates, and in the longer-term by helping us enhance and develop the initiative. For now, I hope that this letter has given you a better understanding of what we are doing, and why we are doing it.
Do please get in touch if there is anything further you would like to discuss about this matter.
Professor Roger Awan-Scully
Chair, Political Studies Association