Union officials at the University of Birmingham are to conduct a preliminary ballot on industrial action over the institution's decision to close its archaeology department and make 17 compulsory redundancies across its Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity.
A review earlier this year of the institute concluded that falling demand from UK undergraduates for archaeology and declining research income meant that Birmingham should close its archaeology department and end its single-honours degree in the subject. According to the University and College Union, this will mean that the number of permanent archaeology academics at Birmingham will be slashed from 18 to four.
In a statement, the university said it was "clearly not abandoning archaeology" and that a new "Centre for Archaeological Studies", bringing together archaeologists from various units, would "bring a greater focus for the various aspects of archaeological activity at Birmingham". It said that two joint honours courses involving archaeology would also continue to run.
The university also plans to close its contract archaeology unit, claiming it is no longer possible for universities to compete with commercial organisations "while also ensuring that such work generates high-quality research outputs".
According to the UCU, all the staff made redundant from the contract research group submitted a joint grievance earlier this year claiming that the group had not been properly supported by university management.
The restructuring will also mean the creation of a new department of Classics and ancient history. According to the union, the number of permanent academics in the disciplines will decline from 14 to 11.
The new department will aim to recruit more students with A-level grades of at least ABB "from a pool that has contracted and in the face of stiffer competition", the university's statement said. Such students will be exempt next year from the government number control.
The proposals, which have been agreed by the university's executive board and will be considered by its council later this month, will also mean a small number of new staff being recruited on short-term teaching-only contracts, the union said.
The UCU said it is opposed to compulsory redundancies while the university is running regular surpluses; it notes that Birmingham's most recent financial statement showed a £ million surplus.
At a meeting last week, UCU members voted unanimously to proceed to an "indicative ballot" to test the wider membership's appetite for a full ballot on industrial action.
The union told members that the moves were "indicative of a wider attempt to systematically review and make redundancies in departments across the university", and another example of "heavy-handed management" at Birmingham.
As reported by Times Higher Education last month, the UCU has also raised concerns about what it believes is the university's surreptitious introduction of a toughened performance management regime. The university denied the claim.
Michael Whitby, pro vice-chancellor and head of Birmingham's College of Arts and Law, said: "Difficult decisions have had to be taken, but we are grasping this opportunity to establish a reputation for exciting and distinctive programmes and research.
"We are determined that archaeology will remain a vibrant research and teaching discipline at Birmingham and believe that the efforts of our staff will create sustainable, flourishing units."