Poor staff relations threaten Birmingham’s sociology department

The faculty has also been criticised for a poor RAE showing and a lack of research grants. Melanie Newman reports

November 12, 2009

Tensions between academics have been cited as one reason why the University of Birmingham’s sociology department should be closed.

A report to the university’s governing council following a review of the department says “poor relations” between some academic members of staff are “impeding the department in generating significant internal momentum for improvement”.

The report, by Edward Peck, head of Birmingham’s College of Social Sciences, recommends that the department close, along with its degree programme in media, culture and society.

Aside from the employee discord, Professor Peck has given several other reasons for his recommendation. These include the department’s failure to achieve even a “modest” performance in the 2008 research assessment exercise, falling numbers of undergraduate applicants, problems with the supervision of postgraduate students and a low level of research grants.

He advocates transferring an undergraduate programme in sociology to the School of Social Policy and retaining just three members of staff. This would leave the other 12 full-time staff members facing redundancy.

But the review group has been criticised by the University and College Union because no member of the department was included in it.

According to Professor Peck’s report, the “strained relations between some members of academic staff” were responsible for this, as it “would be difficult to select individuals to represent the views of others”.

A decision on the closure will be made by the university’s council in April 2010.

Staff in the department are contesting the recommendations, arguing that the poor RAE showing was due, in part, to a policy of hiring junior researchers: 13 of the 18 staff submitted were taking part in their first RAE.

A statement from those campaigning against the closure said: “This closure will have negative consequences for the reputation of the university and will be perceived as indicative of managerial inadequacy.”

It claimed that when the department was established in 2004, the group reviewing its research strategy had told the university to be prepared for, and support the department through, a “modest” 2008 RAE outcome.

A review of the university’s Institute of Local Government Studies (Inlogov) has also recently concluded.

It recommends “substantial streamlining” of the department, meaning seven staff are now at risk of redundancy.

A third review, of the department of theology and religion, is also under way.

A university spokesman said: “The review of activity in the Inlogov is designed to refocus the centre’s activity on areas of key academic strengths. Although some areas of activity will be reduced or withdrawn, Inlogov will continue to undertake leading research in partnership with local government agencies, and this will continue to inform delivery of a range of high-quality and relevant executive and postgraduate education.”

He added: “The review of activity in the department of sociology has involved extensive discussion with senior academic and support staff within the department.”

The Government’s ten-year framework for higher education, released this month, says it will not stand in the way of university department closures.

The framework says: “Clearly no university will withdraw from activity lightly or in response to short-term and possibly transient changes in demand. But the universities that are prepared to make difficult decisions will be more successful over the next decade than the ones that hold back.”

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com

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