Stick your oar in to keep door ajar

May 12, 2006

If you hear that your department is in line for closure don't lose your head, says Harriet Swain. Take a look at the decision, rally the troops and make your case. You may just win a reprieve

Apparently, your department hasn't been pulling its financial weight in the research assessment exercise. Apparently, student numbers look set to fall. Apparently, the subject is a bit last year. Closure, they say, is the only option.

But, before you start packing, are they right? The first thing to do is object, says Jim Tucker, a reader in chemistry at Exeter University until the department was closed, who now works at Birmingham University.

He advises contacting the local branch of your union and the national body, which may be more helpful, to make sure that they oppose the decision to close. Next, lobby your local MP, ensuring he or she realises how a course closure can reflect badly on the constituency. Student and parent protests can be particularly effective, he says, because people are more likely to identify with them than with a group of academics.

He also recommends lobbying colleagues in other disciplines. A handful of lecturers protesting about losing their jobs excites little interest, while a university-wide protest can be much more influential. Any decision on closing a department has to be passed by senate, which is made up of academics from a range of departments. Members of senate may have been told that if the closure does not go ahead their own departments could be under threat. Tucker says it is important to put alternative arguments forward and keep senate properly informed.

In addition, he suggests contacting your professional body. From the outset, the Royal Society of Chemistry was strongly opposed to the closure of the chemistry department at Exeter and lobbied decision-makers in Government and the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Wendy Patterson, who set up Parents Against Cuts at Exeter, says if course closure has to happen, there should be a gradual phasing out period rather than an attempt to axe a department in weeks. She says that, at Exeter, lecturing staff were being offered redundancy packages and were taking up new posts even before ratification of the closure by the senate. This, in effect, meant "that the chemistry department ceased to properly function at a crucial time for students".

Albert Crowe, head of the physics department at Newcastle University until it was incorporated into the School of Natural Sciences four years ago, says the priority should be to make sure students who have started their courses are well treated, and the only way to do this is to hang on to as many staff as possible for as long as possible.

"I don't see how you would run a course down in a methodical systematic way if you didn't have staff to teach out the course," he says. "Any institution that goes down the road of getting rid of staff and worrying about students later is asking for trouble."

This does not mean drawing on the resources of staff teaching elsewhere in the university who have some kind of knowledge of the subject under threat.

"Teaching a degree programme isn't just having a few people who will walk into a lecture," says Crowe. "There are all the things that go on in the background that support the students."

Even so, Tucker advises, as soon as closure looks likely, teaching and research staff should be pragmatic and start updating their CVs. He says that once closure is in the air, rival university departments are likely to visit the university's website to look at academic profiles. Those who have large amounts of funding or have published research in top-ranking journals are likely to perform well in the next research assessment exercise. "If people highlight their research profile on their website, that helps," he says.

He warns that you need to think about what will happen to a research group and PhD students if a senior academic leaves. Other members of staff may also decide to go if their subject is related to the one under threat because they may feel it will be taken less seriously.

Trevor Jarvis, secretary of the Association of University Teachers at Hull University and a maths lecturer in the former mathematics department there, says academics need to make sure not only that they will receive proper redundancy pay but also that there is a chance for them to move somewhere else.

He also warns that even if arrangements have been made for existing students to finish their course, you need to take into account what will happen to students on four-year degree programmes, those having to retake or those who are suffering from a serious illness.

Meanwhile, students need to be financially compensated for the academic and financial disadvantages of switching institution or degree programme, Patterson says. She says it is important to keep in close touch with students to reassure them and tell them what arrangements have been put in place.

Jarvis says communication is essential at every stage. Lecturers should not be asked to recruit students when closure is being mooted, they should be consulted - and listened to - when the closure is being debated, and kept informed about arrangements once the decision to close is taken. They also need to know what will happen to the department's books and other resources.

Finally, Tucker is reassuring. He says that 18 months on, very few of his colleagues are out of a job. Some have gone to other universities, others to industry and quite a few have trained as teachers or are considering training. The irony is that this could help create a generation of enthusiastic chemistry A-level students in search of a university course.

Further information Parents Against Cuts at Exeter: www.exaction.org.uk

Association of University Teachers: www.aut.org.uk

National Association of Lecturers in Further and Higher Education: www.natfhe.org.uk

TOP TIPS

Question the decision to close

Get publicity

Update the research bits of your CV

Make sure the closure happens slowly

Ensure the process is happening in the open

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