Why even a physicist like me should shudder at Goldsmiths’ predicament

The humanities- and social sciences-focused institution is the canary in UK higher education’s increasingly explosive coalmine, says Sir Keith Burnett

April 20, 2024
A canary in a dark cage
Source: iStock/ckarlie

Headline news on university finances over the last few months has been chilling. One after another, higher education institutions have announced schemes to reduce staff numbers and even entire areas of study. Behind the headlines is a world of pain.

That pain is particularly acute at Goldsmiths, University of London, whose senior management have described a “perfect financial storm” striking an institution that is globally respected for its work in the arts, humanities and social sciences. Its “transformation programme” could reportedly result in the loss of 92 full-time-equivalent posts.

My heart sank as I heard the news. But why should I, a quantum technology man, be concerned about what some view as “woke” academics writing articles and books they believe no sensible person gives a damn about? 

Well, let’s get the declaration of interest over with first. Without Goldsmiths, my beautiful grandson, Jacob, would not exist; his parents met at that specialist institution while they were studying postgraduate courses in journalism and philosophy. 

But another reason we should all take the institution’s troubles seriously is that they are a symptom of a problem for the whole UK university sector – and, therefore, for the nation as a whole.

After a load of political guff, the many articles written recently about problems with university funding eventually get to the point. Across the entire UK (not just England), the public money for teaching has been frozen for the last decade. Think how much your own bills have gone up in the last 10 years and think how much of a mess you would be in if your wages had been frozen all that time.

The government is also choking off the other source of funding, international student fees. They are doing this as part of a distinctly xenophobic push to reduce immigration even though most people don’t think of students as immigrants and don’t care about student immigration (it is the boats run by people smugglers that worry many of them). 

So it is no surprise that things have got nasty for many universities around the country. Nor is it surprising that the less well-heeled universities that are suffering the most are often the places doing the heavy lifting for society. Coming back to Goldsmiths, you might want to note just how much critical training in the task of looking after vulnerable people that noble institution did with the money from international student fees.

The newspapers and commentators have only started to notice what is going on now that people are being made redundant. Even now, their reports often contain some crap about there being no need to worry about the bigger, better-funded universities. But this is a sensible admonition only in the sense of immediate danger. The big fish are by no means invulnerable in the medium term.

In fact, they are able to swim faster than the receding tide of cash for teaching only because of their international reputations and banked past earnings. But the government is doing nothing to turn that tide, and that will ultimately damage all universities and all departments, including the ones I personally care about: physics departments. 

The UK needs physics departments and every physicist they train. But physics departments cannot rely just on subsidies from other subjects to make up for the income that student fees no longer provide. When those other subjects are also losing their international students, everyone suffers.

Nor, of course, can research make up the shortfall. The official figures show that research also has to be subsidised by international student fees. In the case of science and the arts and humanities, the money usually comes from subjects such as business or international relations.

You probably know the origin of the phrase “the canary in the coalmine” – but, coming from a mining valley, the phrase is particularly close to home for me. A canary in a little cage would be carried by a miner because canaries were known to be sensitive to explosive gas. Just a little of it would cause the bird to pass out, giving the miners a warning before enough gas built up to kill everyone in the mine. 

Goldsmiths and the other institutions that have already been forced to make cuts are the canaries in higher education’s coalmine. If we don’t pay attention, the explosion will kill all of us. So we can’t just shrug and let the canaries die.

But, more than that, we should care about the health of all disciplines at our universities for their own sakes – not least because I’m pretty sure that if you stop caring about scholarship in its broadest sense, you will end up not caring about too many other valuable things.

Academics see the value of all kinds of intellectual struggle. It stems from an instinct about what sort of life you want to live, what sort of society you want to be part of. My life has been made immeasurably richer by my being part of a real university, and I wanted our children and grandchildren to experience it too. If government gets it into its head to cut off those parts of academic life whose direct social value isn’t obvious to politicians, we will all end up an impoverished bunch.

I say this not as some centre-left softie who wants to preserve what he had in the past – although I do. I say it as someone looking hard at a future driven by advancing AI in a complex and perplexing world. I see the students from across the UK and the world to whom the sheer quality of Goldsmiths’ “woke-workers” gave a perspective and preparation for the future.

The world is making choices that will shape all of our futures. We must not act in error now.

Sir Keith Burnett is president of the Institute of Physics and former vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield.

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Reader's comments (3)

This needed to be said but I do not think many politicians are listening even though many of them benefited from the system as it was!
We need to cut the managerial bloat in UK universities and use technology to reduce the admin burden. The senior management teams are often full of incompetents that have negative value added. Each member of the senior management team then has a load of supporting admin that could also be cut out again saving a fortune. The money is there it is just wasted on an epic scale.
Can only second the main article and the comments especially on what is parasitic administrative bloat. Every institution needs efficient administration, but Universities are rife with non job creations with made up positions to serve the latest imaginary zeitgeisty roles. Its as though the primary academic role of the UKHE institutions have been reversed so that they have a secondary supporting role to administration. I am aware of senior administrators being involved in making decisions about what degree subjects should be supported or not. You couldn't make it up. I am afraid like the lights over Europe going out in 1914, the canaries alluded to here are dropping off their perches across the sector.