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Forwarded from the ether

January 7, 2010

This, my pets, just came across my screen accompanied by a sly reference to the situation closer to home:

What are universities for?  [from the TLS, Jan. 6/10]

Sir, – A document has come into my possession which might be of interest to your readers – an email, in fact, which the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sussex, Michael Farthing, has sent to all undergraduates, explaining to them his plans for “the development of the University”. These plans consist of the sacking of over 100 staff and the closing down or reduction of a number of “areas”, so that the word “development” is somewhat ironic, but in keeping with the tone of the document, which is couched throughout in the worst bureaucratese. Thus: “Our aim is to continue to invest in successful areas in the University and grow our income where possible”.

As one might imagine, this is not good news for those disciplines which have always been seen as at the heart of the Humanities side of English universities. “In some areas”, the VC says, “there are no opportunities for sustainable growth and we need to make targeted reductions in those areas while continuing to develop our Univer-sity as a broad and balanced research-intensive institution across the arts and social sciences.” It is difficult to see how this last aspiration is to be met when it is followed by this: “In a number of schools we are now seeking financial savings, including Engineering and design; English; History, Art History and Philosophy; Informatics; and Life Sciences”. By contrast, predictably: “In academic schools with recent growth and good prospects for the future, we are pressing ahead with our growth and development plans, including the schools of Business, Management and Economics; Global Studies; and Media, Film and Music”.

Though he insists that “staff affected by the changes will receive our support and help”, none of the people so affected that I have talked to has received any such thing, and, indeed, it is difficult to see what form such support and help might take. The VC also insists, in his execrable English, that he is committed to “maintaining excellence in the student experience”, promising that “we will support your teaching, and we are not proposing to reduce contact hours” – presumably he will achieve this by working the remaining faculty even harder. “We will continue to invest in improving the student experience at Sussex”, he concludes. “One of our absolute priorities through this difficult process is our commitment to students and to the quality of the education and student experience we provide.”

Clearly, this university at any rate is being treated strictly as a business, with the least profitable branches closed and the most profitable ones developed. No doubt, in the light of the proposed changes to research funding criteria (see Stefan Collini, “Impact on humanities”, November 13, 2009) and the cuts recently announced by Lord Mandelson, vice-chancellors around the country are doing exactly what Farthing is doing. The question this raises is: Are universities really businesses? And if not, what are they? Are they to become forcing houses for the immediate economic development of the country and nothing else (ie, are Business and Media studies to replace Engineering, English, History and Philosophy)? If that is what the country wants, so be it. But we should be clear that it means the end of universities as they have been known in the West since the Middle Ages.

60 Prince Edward’s Road, Lewes.

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