Loss of philosophy at Middlesex raises fears for humanities

Concern that focus on STEM subjects may squeeze out arts in post-92 institutions, writes John Morgan

May 6, 2010

Fears have been raised for the future of the humanities in post-1992 universities after Middlesex University announced it is to close its philosophy programmes.

The university's move to phase out all teaching in philosophy at undergraduate and postgraduate level led to international condemnation from some of the best-known figures in the field.

Academics fear closure will follow for the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, which was Middlesex's highest-rated department in the 2008 research assessment exercise. A Middlesex spokesman said no decision had been made about the centre's future.

In a letter to Times Higher Education published this week, 30 leading academics say the "abrupt closure" of Middlesex's programmes is "a matter of national and international concern". The signatories include: Slavoj Zizek, co-director of the International Centre for Humanities at Birkbeck, University of London; Alain Badiou, emeritus professor of philosophy at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris; and Gayatri Spivak, university professor in the humanities at Columbia University in the US.

They describe Middlesex as "one of the most important centres for the study of modern European philosophy anywhere in the English-speaking world".

Its philosophy department is one of a handful in the UK that "provides both research-driven and inclusive postgraduate teaching and supervision aimed at a wide range of students, specialist and non-specialist", the letter says.

Middlesex stated publicly that the philosophy programmes were being closed because of low undergraduate numbers. After pressure from management, staff say they increased undergraduate application numbers by 149 per cent - but the decision to close went through.

Sources told THE that, internally, management said the decision was part of a drive to increase teaching income from the Higher Education Funding Council for England by switching to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.

A banding system operated by Hefce puts humanities subjects such as philosophy in band D, which receives the lowest funding.

Edward Esche, dean of arts and education at Middlesex, told staff that Hefce had sent the university two letters in April pushing for switches from band D subjects to those in the higher-earning C and B bands, which include business, vocational and STEM subjects. He said this would allow Middlesex to generate more income at a time when student recruitment was subject to a national cap.

A Hefce spokesman said it had made "a small amount of money" - £10 million - available "for institutions to transfer into strategically important subjects" in 2010-11. He added that this would provide extra funding for only 3,000 to 6,000 full-time student places in England.

Lord Mandelson told Hefce in his December grant letter: "Promotion of STEM disciplines should be a factor in all of your activities, since these are subjects that employers consistently tell us they will need in the long term."

A member of staff at Middlesex said: "It will be a university without non-vocational subjects, without arts and humanities. This is the pressure on all post-92 universities ... The older universities will be under similar pressure, but will have more leeway (financially) and be more concerned about presenting themselves as balanced universities."

Nina Power, senior lecturer in philosophy at Roehampton University who gained her doctorate at Middlesex, said: "It is not about quality. Middlesex is ranked 13 out of 41 in the country for philosophy, much higher than some Russell Group universities. This is part of a larger move that post-92 universities are making to eliminate research departments in view of getting foreign students to do business degrees."

There are 12 undergraduates on single-honours philosophy courses at Middlesex, but staff state there are 45 in total who receive teaching when joint-honours courses and electives are taken into account. Six academic staff work in philosophy.

A university spokesman said the decision to close the teaching programmes was "regrettable but unavoidable in light of continuing constraints on public funding".

A Facebook group, "Save Middlesex Philosophy", has attracted more than 8,000 members.

john.morgan@tsleducation.com

Letters, page 34.

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