COVID-19 and the Australian Historical Association

This is the entry I did not want to write.

It is with great disappointment that the Australian Historical Association must announce this morning that our annual conference will not go ahead on the dates scheduled, 29 June to 3 July 2020. The AHA will provide further details soon about the scheduling of the conference.

The organising committee at Deakin University has put in a great amount of work already. The conference was shaping up to be a lively event at the Geelong Waterfront campus and I hope you’ll join me in praising their efforts. They are grappling with a situation unprecedented in the history of our conferences, which began in 1981.

You will be pleased to know that our prizes, bursaries, and scholarships will be awarded as usual. The announcements will have to be done virtually. The prizes to be awarded are: the Kay Daniels Award, the Magarey Medal for Biography, the Serle Award, the WK Hancock Prize, the Jill Roe Prize, the Allan Martin Award and the Ann Curthoys Prize. The bursaries and scholarships to be awarded are: the Patrick Wolfe Early Career Researcher Conference Bursary; AHA/Copyright Agency Early Career Researcher Mentorship Scheme; AHA/Copyright Agency Postgraduate Conference Bursaries; AHA/Honest History AHA Conference Teacher Scholarship; NAA/AHA Postgraduate Scholarships; Jill Roe Early Career Researcher AHA Conference Scholarship Scheme.

The AHA’s annual general meeting normally occurs at the conference. This will, of course, no longer be possible. We must, however, hold our AGM and it will run online, with details to be confirmed in due course. This year is an election year: we need to elect the President, Vice-President, Treasurer, Honorary Secretary, five Ordinary Members, and PhD and ECR representatives. A call for expressions of interest will be circulated in April. Our constitution provides that if there is only one nominee for a position, that person is elected automatically.

ECR representatives have so far served for only one term each and I don’t plan to break that tradition. If you are interested in nominating for the ECR position, please feel free to get in touch with me if you’d like to chat about the role. You can send a direct message to me on Twitter (at either the AHA ECR account or my personal one) or email me at abrett@uow.edu.au – I’m more than happy to answer any questions you might have. This is not a requirement: you can nominate without saying a peep to me! But I want to be clear that I’m available for anyone who’d like to discuss the role.

I’d like to quickly open a more general COVID-19 discussion. This is a challenging time for everyone right now. Please be thoughtful and compassionate and keep washing your hands. I say this as someone who might outwardly appear an active, healthy, (relatively) young man—but one who ticks multiple high-risk boxes. Every action you take to limit the spread of the virus is valuable.

The people who run our universities face great challenges, and there are no easy or straightforward solutions. I grew curious about whether people at Australian higher education institutions think their universities have reacted adequately to date, so I ran a series of polls on my personal Twitter account for 24 hours from Monday evening to Tuesday evening (15–16 March). It’s a self-selecting sample, but the results are interesting.

The first poll got the best exposure: out of 105 voters, 46.7% are dissatisfied with their institution’s response, 19% are somewhat dissatisfied, and 34.2% are satisfied or somewhat satisfied (17.1% each). I then ran polls for staff, divided into permanent and precarious, and for students, undergrad and postgrad. All are more dissatisfied than satisfied. Undergrad students had the best rate of satisfaction but the sample size is too small to draw conclusions. Precarious staff are the most likely to be dissatisfied, which is unsurprising as too few universities have given clear indications of support for casuals. Interestingly, those respondents who consider themselves more “at risk” from COVID-19 than the general population were more likely to be satisfied with their institution’s response than those who do not, although both groups have a majority dissatisfied.

These are trying times to be stuck in insecure work and I’ll do what I can to promote fair and equitable treatment for casuals and ECRs. Universities talk a good game about how inclusive and community-oriented they are; we are going to find out who is actually serious. I do not envy senior management as they try to plot a way forward through profound uncertainty. But trust in university leadership is notoriously poor right now in much of our sector and the decisions in coming weeks will do a lot—either to regain that trust or damage it irreparably. Casuals must be treated generously. Postgrads, research grant recipients, and fixed-term staff, to name just three groups, will need requirements waived or altered, deadlines pushed back, and contracts or candidature extended. These circumstances are new, so the solutions must be original.

Please, everyone, be good to those around you. Our health is the most important thing.

Kia kaha (be ever strong),
Dr André Brett, current AHA ECR representative

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