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.