Row deepens over Sheffield plans to close archaeology department

University accused of destroying notes from a meeting, which it says is standard practice

June 19, 2021
An archaeological dig
Source: iStock

The row over plans to close the University of Sheffield’s archaeology department has intensified, as staff and students say they were misled over the possible outcomes of a review, and claim that notes from an important meeting were destroyed.

The archaeology department said it had been informed last month by the university executive board that it was “proposing to close the department of archaeology by moving two areas (human osteology and cultural heritage) into other departments and making the rest of the staff redundant”.

“As a department we unanimously reject this decision, and the grounds upon which it was made. It will mean the end of archaeology at Sheffield,” a statement said. Nearly 45,000 had signed a petition to save the department at the time of writing.

The plans to close the whole department but move certain programmes to other departments in the university were recommend by a review commissioned by the university executive board.

However, the local branch of the University and College Union said in a letter to members that “serious concern” had been raised about the review.

This included allegations that the transcripts and notes from meetings as part of the review had been destroyed and that there had been an “insufficient response to student concerns about the department closure”.

In an email to a student who expressed concerns over the decision and asked to see the minutes from a review meeting that included them, a senior policy officer said that “the notes were disposed of once they had been used to create the report of the review group”.

According to Sheffield, it “is not standard practice to retain working notes for longer than is necessary as they often contain confidential information regarding individuals or commercially sensitive information provided by external members”.

Staff also said they felt that the decision to close the department had been taken before the review even began, because they had already been notified of plans to close a number of undergraduate programmes. “We were told the university wanted to support our department and overcome the challenges it faced but it became clear they had already decided to close it,” one academic told THE.

The university has cited the low numbers of firm undergraduate places – fewer than 10 for 2021-22 – as a reason for closure, although postgraduate numbers have risen year on year.

Staff also say they believe the downward trend in undergraduate applications is at least partly due to the university’s increased A-level tariff.

The university council, the institution’s governing body, will take advice from the senate – which oversees academic matters – before issuing a decision on 12 July.

A spokesperson said: “While student recruitment across the University of Sheffield remains very strong, like many other leading universities it has experienced declining numbers of students choosing to read archaeology. The university’s executive board commissioned a review of archaeology to consider how it could address a challenging external environment, and support and strengthen archaeology teaching and research.

“The board has supported a recommendation that it believes will not only maintain and support the archaeology discipline at the university, but also ensure it thrives, sustaining it by focusing on postgraduate studies and investing in key areas of excellence which have contributed to Sheffield’s reputation as a top 100 global university with world-leading research and innovation.

“Although no decision has yet been taken, the recommendation would also ensure that many fantastic and important projects and partnerships within the city and its communities, and much further afield, would continue to flourish.”

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