$1.3m for humanities and social sciences research

14 October 2020
History, politics and Indigenous research receive funding boost
Sydney humanities and social science researchers have been awarded more than $1.3m to examine a range of topics, including democracy in the bush, home ownership and what we can learn from history about free university education.

Minister for Education Dan Tehan announced today that Sydney would receive funding for six projects under the Australian Research Council (ARC) Special Research Initiative for Australian Society, History and Culture scheme.

Deputy-Vice Chancellor (Research) Professor Duncan Ivison said the results reflected the University’s long-held strength in humanities and social sciences scholarship.

“Our research has uncovered the mysteries of Angkor Wat, helped develop ABC’s Vote Compass to assist Australians to make informed political decisions ahead of elections, and helped argue for front-line combat roles for women.”

“I’m proud of the impact our humanities and social science research has had in recent years and am pleased to see our academics are being supported to study important questions for all Australians, including how we can ensure more Australians are able to own their own home.”

The University of Sydney is ranked first in Australia and 14th in the world for Arts and Humanities by US News and World Report and second in Australia and 13th in the world for Law in the QS Subject rankings.

Headshot of Annika Gauja

Transforming democracy in the bush

Associate Professor Anika Gauja (pictured) and her team were awarded $262,359 to examine how rural Australians participate in politics, the interests they seek to advance, and the efficacy of their political and civic activities.

One third of Australians live outside major cities yet little is known about the democratic dynamics unfolding in rural Australia as it faces major demographic, economic and environmental change.

“Rural Australians are grappling with an ageing population, the economic fallout of COVID-19 on key industries, such as tourism, and unprecedented environmental disasters as a result of climate change," Associate Professor Gauja said.   

“Through surveys and fieldwork with rural communities, this research will produce new insights into how Australian democracy is changing and the public policy implications of these changes. It will also examine why traditional groups representing rural interests, such as the National Party, are suffering long-term declines in members and income, while new and hybrid forms of political participation have emerged in some rural communities.”

Lessons from history on free university education

Associate Professor Julia Horne (pictured) and her team were awarded $265,000 to study the transformative effect of free university education for ex-service men and women after World War II.

The Australian government’s Commonwealth Reconstruction and Training Scheme fuelled post-war recovery, both economically and socially, through building knowledge and expertise.

By the late 1950s, 25,000 university-educated graduates had been through the scheme, including University of Sydney professor of politics Henry Mayer, botanist and geneticist Margaret Blackwood, lawyer and politician Billy Sneddon and literary editor Stephen Murray-Smith.

“This was the first time in Australia’s history that the Commonwealth government injected significant sums of money into universities, doubling the student population and opening universities up to a more socially diverse group of students including Indigenous returned servicemen and women (who concealed their Indigenous background),” Associate Professor Horne said.

It paved the way for the generous Commonwealth funding for education in the 1960s and 70s, the only time in Australia’s history when the university system has been (almost) fully funded by the public purse.

As part of the project, Professor Horne and her team, including Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor and fellow historian, Professor Stephen Garton, will conduct a biographical survey of 6,500 ex-service men and women who participated in the scheme to study the worth of public investment in higher education.

“What this history shows us is how, in times of catastrophe, governments include universities as part of a strategy to recovery.”

Infrastructure for Indigenous communities and more

Associate Professor Tess Lea (pictured) and her team were awarded $180,000 to examine the infrastructure that remote Indigenous communities currently have and still need to support them to stay on country.

Associate Professor Lea joins an architectural firm, the Fulcrum Agency, Healthabitat, and representatives from the Central Land Council and the Aboriginal Housing Authority Northern Territory, to explore how the effects of climate change, such as water shortage and increasing heat, threaten habitability in regional and remote contexts, including by increasing strain on essential services infrastructure.

This project aims to investigate historical work to construct and maintain essential infrastructures and examine the contemporary vulnerabilities of those legacies. The intent is to inform government policy on remote services provision and community control, and assist community advocacy regarding sustainable housing, infrastructural resilience, and collaborative approaches to governance.

“The project builds on the work of our Housing for Health Incubator," Associate Professor Lea says, “which showed the power of understanding legacy infrastructure to anyone’s ability to anticipate future challenges.”

“When people talk about climate change, little attention is paid to what lies underground or overhead, who is responsible for what bit, and whether these form a liability or an asset for living well under increasing heat and water scarcity. It swiftly becomes apparent when something goes wrong, like the appearance of lead in water, that knowing the biography of infrastructures really matters to people’s ability to stay on their country.”

Professor Martijn Konings and his team were awarded $241,000 to look into causes and solutions to the growing inequalities of wealth in Australia in an era when housing prices have risen faster than wages.

Professor Catherine Driscoll and her team were awarded $247,683 to research boyhood in Australia and how we can challenge cultural assumptions about the interests of boys and reframe the narrative away from boys at school, on the streets and in relationships.

Dr Rayner Thwaites and his team were awarded $113,075 to investigate what it means legally to be an Australian, exploring key constitutional cases in which individuals' claims to "belong" were the central issue. 

For more details on the ARC Special Research Initiative for Australian Society, History and Culture grant outcomes, including a full list of all investigators, visit the ARC website

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