Posted tagged ‘Middlesex University’

Not just a philosophical question

March 28, 2011

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.

Philosophical questions

May 9, 2010

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.