Philosophical questions

Over the past week or two a lot of attention in the academic world has focused on Middlesex University in the UK. The issue that has attracted all this is the university’s decision to close its philosophy department. While the university has stated that the reason for the closure is the department’s inability to attract a sufficient number of students, critics have suggested that the real reason is that the funding formula used in England discourages universities from maintaining humanities subjects and encourages them to switch student places to the sciences and engineering.

It is not my intention here to debate the rights and wrongs of the Middlesex decision – which would not be an easy task anyway, as the university has not revealed too much about its strategy in this matter, with not even a press release to explain its decision. Rather, this particular development raises questions about what we might expect from universities in terms of the distribution of students and resources between different subject areas, and more particularly, whether as some suggest the humanities will come under threat in all but the biggest and most cash-rich institutions.

In Ireland this issue takes on a particular significance as it has been made clear by the government that it does not particularly welcome the existence of small departments in individual universities teaching relatively few students in subjects that nationally are not attracting large numbers. In such circumstances, it is sometimes argued, that provision for such subjects should be concentrated in one university only, so that it can reach critical mass and be internationally competitive. If you go back to the Middlesex philosophy example, as far as I can work out the university has four lecturers in that subject, apparently teaching an annual intake of 12 students. While there is a good deal of evidence that the university has built up quite a reputation in the area, it may also argue that it is too small here to make a sustained impact; or it may argue (as may be the case) that it just doesn’t pay to work in this way.

Set against this is the question whether a university, in order to be a university, needs to teach certain disciplines. But who would decide what disciplines these must be, and on what basis? And if there is a ‘broad spread’ requirement for a university, where does that leave an institution like the London School of Economics, for example?

It seems to me that most universities – that is, all except those who are long established, have reasonable size and enjoy considerable financial reserves – nowadays will need to make some choices about what they will focus on and maintain; it cannot be absolutely everything. What choices a university makes will need in part to be informed by where it has expertise and what strategic direction it wishes to take. I doubt that we can require all institutions to maintain an even distribution across disciplinary areas. On the other hand, universities are intellectual organisations, and they need to be able to demonstrate that their choices are informed by and help to ensure critical debate and analysis.

The debate and protests around the Middlesex events should be harnessed to address some of these issues. And if it were found to be the case that the higher education funding formula is driving the humanities out of smaller universities, then perhaps that should be revisited. However, we should not be seduced by the thought that every university must teach and research every subject; or that once a subject portfolio is established, it can never be altered.

The question that remains, however, is how we can ensure that across the system as a whole the different subject areas are adequately distributed. This is the kind of role that governments or their agencies ten to think they ought to have. Most universities would disagree; but for their disagreement to persuasive, they need to show that they are alive to this and are tackling it.

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5 Comments on “Philosophical questions”

  1. Vincent Says:

    I’m sorry but you can have a University with nothing else other than Philosophy. So in many eyes Middlesex will simply revert. Or in reality continue as it has done. For if they get rid of Philosophy they have little understanding of what a University is up to anyway. But that is not necessarily a bad thing, simply different in a fish or fowl sort of way.

  2. Jilly Says:

    Have a look at this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education (which is now subscriber only, so this link is to a blog which reproduces the piece in full):http://kenthink7.blogspot.com/2010/03/humanities-depts-actually-produce.html

    In brief, this piece convincingly argues that in the US system, the humanities are effectively ‘profit-making’ and often cross-subsidize the supposedly more ‘efficient’ science and business departments.

    Obviously the US system has a very different funding model from ours or the UK system. But it does point to an important paradox in our system. We are frequently exhorted to adopt a ‘business-like’ approach to our universities, effectively thinking of our departments/subject areas as products which need to operate in line with market-forces. Whatever we may feel about the rights and wrongs of considering higher education in this way (and for the record, I think its wrong), it does seem clear that many of the humanities are very profitable products indeed in such a context. They can take in large numbers, need few expensive facilities to deliver, and are undoubtedly popular with the ‘customers’, who consistently flock to them. So per capita of students, a subject like history or English is cheaper to deliver than most sciences, and attracts large numbers.

    Therefore, in the world of Full Economic Costing and exhortations to think about our subjects as products, you’d expect the bigger humanities subjects to be the darlings of the modern university campus. And yet of course they’re not. It’s quite bad enough to be encouraged to think of subject areas as ‘products’, but it is then especially annoying to have a popular and cost-effective ‘product’ yet still be berated as if you’re a ‘drain on the system’.

    It strikes me that if fees are reintroduced in Ireland, this could become a real flash-point, because it would highlight this anomaly even further.


    • Thanks, Jilly. How to evaluate profitability or, more usefully, value is very complex. But I suppose that no subject area that can only recruit 12 students p.a. will find it easy to make a case based on the financials. That doesn’t mean a case cannot be made, of course.

  3. cormac Says:

    An annual intake of 12 students?That is small – but rather than closing the department, isn’t it a pity the university doesn’t allow students of other disciplines to take modules in philosophy. That would keep the department alive and enhance the educational opportunities of the general student cohort

  4. Gordon Says:

    But the LSE do have a philosophy department, the Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method. And yes, MIT have one too! They would hardly be among the best universiites in the world if they didn’t. I would advise any upwardly mobile university to go and get themselves a philosophy department (second hand, perhaps?). The bizarre thing is that Middlesex, a ‘new’ university, not very distinguished otherwise, is closing about the only department they are internationally known for. Noam Chomsky is weighing in behind them! The decision seems astonishingly inward looking.


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