Not just a philosophical question

Over the past year campaigns have been fought over the survival of small philosophy departments in at least two British universities: Middlesex and Keele. In both cases the university concerned had decided to discontinue the subject, where philosophy was not part of what many might have considered the more visible public identity of the institution; but equally in both cases the philosophers had built up significant standing in the wider academic community. In the second of these, the case of Keele, the university has now reversed its decision and the subject will survive (and of course the inevitable Facebook campaign helped).

I have always believed that philosophy has a vital role to play in the academy, and so when Keele announced its change of heart I was really rather pleased. But there are difficult issues here from which we cannot so easily escape. The idea of a university as an institution that contains all the key elements of classical scholarship is not one that can still survive. Fifty years ago you could imagine a perfectly good university with 60 departments covering all the traditional subjects, and with the average number of academics in each department being perhaps eight or nine. That model is no longer viable. We now have a knowledge framework that requires much bigger academic units to provide critical mass. There is still scope for some smaller, boutique departments, but these cannot provide the backbone of an entire university.

So universities will have to make difficult choices, and we cannot all rise up in arms every time an institution decides that it must drop something. One would hope that any such decisions, if they are made, will involve a transfer of staff, and will involve good communications and dialogue with staff; in other words, this needs to be done well. But the search for a viable model of a university will still need to go on. Furthermore as it does, the idea that you cannot have a university without, say, history, or chemistry, or philosophy cannot be sustained any longer either. Some universities will become much more specialised in a smaller range of subject areas; or maybe a different kind of interdisciplinary range.

I am still pleased for the Keele philosophers, and I hope they thrive. Actually, I somehow think that however they are configured all universities should have at least a philosopher or two. But I wouldn’t like to think that the lesson from all this is that difficult decisions of this kind should never be taken. That would be unrealistic.

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14 Comments on “Not just a philosophical question”

  1. wendymr Says:

    As a veteran of many protests against closure of degree programmes and departments at Keele throughout the 1990s and early 2000s (until I left Keele), I’m delighted to see this particular battle succeed.

    Of course, this isn’t going to be the end of it; Keele is in big financial trouble, not at all helped by its salary costs (65% of operating budget, where HECFE prefers 55%). But this is hardly the fault of the students or the academic staff who would have been affected by the closure of the philosophy joint honours programme or the work of PEAK. It’s the fault of close to two decades of mismanagement, many of the perpetrators of which have now moved on.

    There may well be a case to be made that it is not possible for every university to maintain a full portfolio of programmes, but such decisions should be made strategically, not in the kind of panic slash-and-burn mentality that has been the case at Keele for the past almost 20 years.

  2. Vincent Says:

    Undoubtedly you can have institutions without Philosophy or History, but down here in Tipperary we tend to call them racing stables.
    There are way to many fools about believing that we as a species arrived at this point because of an innate humanity. Bullshit. We are where we are due to hard work over thousands of years developing that humanity. And what dimwits decided that we should have halted intellectual progress once the accounting system arrived.


  3. […] “Over the past year campaigns have been fought over the survival of small philosophy departments in at least two British universities: Middlesex and Keele …” (more) […]

  4. Ernie Ball Says:

    You’ve provided no argument for this ridiculous and peremptory sentence–“The idea of a university as an institution that contains all the key elements of classical scholarship is not one that can still survive”–other than this meaningless and equally peremptory sentence: “We now have a knowledge framework that requires much bigger academic units to provide critical mass.”

    We have a “knowledge framework” do we? What, pray tell, is that? It “requires bigger units” does it? Well, I guess if the knowledge framework requires bigger units, we’d better be ready to jettison whole areas of old (and therefore pointless) knowledge that doesn’t help anyone buy a bigger car. After all, who are we to question the requirements of the knowledge framework?

    Unless, of course, the people making claims like these are themselves guilty of a sort of breathtaking arrogance that allows them to sweep aside centuries of learning for no other reason than that they have decreed that a new day has arrived.

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      I suppose the question then is: how do they know a new day has arrived? What do they know about all of the “old days” and how do they know it?


    • I have provided an argument, Ernie: unless you are mega mega rich, you cannot afford it. Simple as that.

      • Al Says:

        Ah… seriously..
        Is it all that expensive equipment that is required?

      • Ernie Ball Says:

        Can you elaborate? What is the “it” and who can’t afford it?


        • ‘It’ is having the full range of academic subjects across all disciplines, adequately resourced and with sufficient staff numbers. Outside of Harvard and Cambridge and the like nobody can afford that – at least not while also doing it well. That is particularly true in a country with a small population but several universities (which I wouldn’t want to change).

          • Ernie Ball Says:

            How is this possible given that Ireland today is a much richer country than it was at any point in its past, even after the recent downturn, as Norman Wyse points out below? If Ireland could afford it in the 60s and 70s and 80s, why can it not now?

            What’s actually changed since then is, of course, that the universities all now have a huge class of highly-remunerated parasites, er, professional administrators, most of which are unnecessary but which divert huge amounts of resources.

            Isn’t our tax money better spent on philosophers than on, say, “vice presidents for innovation” (especially when you can probably hire 3 or 4 of the former for the price of the latter)?

          • Al Says:

            Ferdinand, If I could tease out a point from what you said…
            Implicit in what you say is something like ‘in order to be world class, we need to choose what we will be world class in, as it cant be everything’.
            This seems to be the current mentality, however it is/will be a speculative attempt at becoming ‘world class’ and a risk that may or may not pay off.
            The costs of this risk need to be articulated….

  5. Norman Wyse Says:

    I’m still struggling with the idea that in advanced western capitalisms of the 21st century, which have enjoyed rude growth for the past few centuries, that the end result is that we can no longer afford to maintain even small philosophy departments.

    There is something perverse going on here. The growth of capitalism in the 19th century made possible expansive social welfare apparatuses whilst still providing for huge economic expansion. Now we are saying we can no longer afford a handful of academics in each university to teach philosophy. Any more centuries of this kind of growth and we won’t be able to afford schools, hospitals and postal services!


  6. Al, I never used the term ‘world class’ – if I can avoid it, I never use it. But there is a fundamental difference between the largely teaching-only institutions in the 1970s (say) and the universities we need to have today. Take the example of DCU. Its National Centre for Sensor Research requires inputs from academics in very specialised fields, and to get this there need to be key departments/schools in the university that are big enough to supply such expertise. In a small country like Ireland you could not possibly have 7 universities that replicate this in every field.

    You can of course have some smaller units, and indeed we all do. But keeping them across all potential 100 or so subject areas is neither realistic nor necessary.


  7. Ernie, you write: ‘If Ireland could afford it in the 60s and 70s and 80s, why can it not now?’

    The ‘it’ that Ireland could afford in the 60s and thereabouts was quite different from what the country needs now. It is not in the same phase of development (as you also point out).

    There are reasons no doubt to assess how universities manage their resources, but frankly, Ernie, in the context we are discussing here senior management appointments in UCD or elsewhere are neither here nor there. The full cost of all senior managers in UCD amounts to less than 1 per cent of the university’s total budget. It makes no difference to the affordability of the model I am talking about.


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