Prof. Roger Awan-Scully & Prof. Claire Dunlop

A message from the PSA’s Chair and Vice-Chair

 

We start a new academic year, but for far too many people there has been precious little opportunity to rest and recover from the previous year. We are ‘starting back’ – but to an environment changed greatly by events of the last eighteen months. 

 

It is clear that Covid-19 will not simply be disappearing any time soon, and it is also increasingly clear that things will never be going ‘back to normal’. In numerous ways, the world has been changed permanently by this pandemic. 

 

Within the world of higher education, working environments have been drastically altered for academics and students alike. Some institutions this autumn are welcoming student intakes several times larger than would have been the case only a few years ago, with little apparent space for academics to do much more than keep their heads above water in coping with vastly increased teaching and assessment loads. At the same time, other departments and institutions struggle for financial viability and continued existence as their student recruitment has dried up. 

 

In this environment, what can the PSA do? There is little we can change about the realities of Covid-19. We have other limits too. We are not an employer (except for our very small staff team) and we are not a trade union, and we shouldn’t pretend to be either of those. But as a learned society, the PSA can do a number of things. 

 

One is to recognise, celebrate and give visibility to excellent work and to the strength of political studies. In Spring, we recruited two new teams of journal editors for Politics and BJPIR. We were delighted with the high quality and quantity of applications for these positions. This speaks to the intellectual health of the discipline, commitment of colleagues to our community, and the standing of the PSA and its publications. We recently saw the full list of nominated books for our annual MacKenzie Prize for the best book published in political studies in 2020. It is an astonishingly strong list, from a diverse array of authors: testament to the vibrancy, strength and breadth of work being conducted in our discipline. Whoever wins will fully deserve recognition. Similarly, our Annual Lecture provides a public showcase for the relevance of political studies. After last year’s Annual Lecture (given by Professor Pippa Norris from Harvard, speaking about democracy in the United States in the wake of the presidential election), I am delighted that the 2021 lecture will be given by Professor Robyn Eckersley of the University of Melbourne, who will be speaking about climate change issues during the period of the COP26 summit; once again, political studies will be directly addressing the major global issues dominating the news. 

 

A second important contribution we can make, within the very limited resources of the PSA, is to invest in sustaining and developing the continued strength of political studies. For example, it became obvious a few months into the pandemic that much of the small-scale funding that supports research was drying up as institutions retrenched in the face of huge uncertainties. The PSA responded by reallocating resources to enable us to establish our Research and Innovation Fund – providing a series of small grants to research groups and to individuals. There was huge interest in this fund, and we wish we could have given even more grants. But it was right to do what we could to respond to a clear need. 

 

A third role that the PSA has long taken on, but which may be of increasing importance, is advocacy. Obviously, the association should always be a champion for our discipline. But circumstances can require changing emphases for our advocacy. A major current concern is that trends in university recruitment will make our discipline even more concentrated within ‘elite’ universities, and largely disappearing from post-1992 institutions. Beyond our immediate and substantial worries for colleagues working in departments under threat, there are also potential implications for the diversity of our student population. We study and teach a subject that is genuinely relevant to everyone. But if we were to become (or even approach becoming) a Russell Group-only discipline, our student population – which ultimately feeds into the next generation of academics – would likely become even more concentrated among the more affluent. That would not be healthy. We ask you as our community to continue to keep us informed about the challenges you face on the ground; we always welcome your views. We continue to engage with key stakeholders such as the British Academy, Academy of Social Sciences and the ESRC. And the PSA will continue to try to speak our truths to power. 

 

Professor Roger Awan-Scully, PSA Chair 

 

Professor Claire Dunlop, PSA Vice-Chair