Course closures ‘inevitable’ consequence of Westminster policy

Aston and London South Bank are latest institutions to shutter humanities and social sciences degrees

April 27, 2021
A road closed sign illustrating course closures
Source: iStock

The latest closures of humanities and social science courses in English universities are the “inevitable” consequence of the government push for institutions to focus on science subjects perceived to offer strong graduate employment opportunities, experts said.

Aston University recently announced that it intends to close its department of history, languages and translation, while London South Bank University (LSBU) said that bachelor’s courses in history and human geography, as well as master’s in refugee studies, development studies and education for sustainability, will close from September.

Commentators pointed to repeated signals from the Westminster government that it would prefer universities to – as described in the conditions for the Covid-19 “restructuring regime” – “focus more heavily upon subjects which deliver strong graduate employment outcomes in areas of economic and societal importance, such as STEM, nursing and teaching”.

Meanwhile, some of the most selective English universities have expanded courses and in some cases lowered entry requirements following the removal of student number controls in 2015 – at the expense of less prestigious institutions.

Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester, said successive governments had encouraged universities to specialise in what they’re best at, as well as in certain types of subjects. 

“As market reforms have intentionally put pressure on universities to think and act this way, it’s inevitable that some provision will disappear in some institutions,” he said.

Liz Morrish, a visiting fellow in the School of Languages and Linguistics at York St John University, agreed, highlighting that universities like LSBU served a number of students from less privileged backgrounds.

“Languages and the humanities generally cannot be allowed to become the preserve of the Russell Group,” she said.  

Critical scholarship could not flourish, Dr Morrish continued, if academics “don’t know from one year to the next whether their high-quality programmes will satisfy whatever shifting metrics university management are setting this year”.

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), said the closures demonstrated how government policy and ideology “trickles down”.

“Underpinning a lot of these closures is the idea that certain people can’t or shouldn’t study these subjects any more…that only those who are privileged can pursue them and everyone else must only think about employability when engaging with education,” she said.

LSBU said “decisions around the courses we offer to prospective students are taken very carefully” but that only 40 students had enrolled on the courses in question for the upcoming year. Aston said it was “in discussions with potentially impacted colleagues and UCU”.

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Reader's comments (2)

Dreadful outcomes signalling the end of intellectual rennaissance that created the very conditions that permitted science and engineering to flourish.
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