V-c upbraided for plans to cut social sciences at Keele

Academics to raise concerns over 'erosion' of the field at professional conference. John Gill reports

March 6, 2008

Janet Finch has a CBE to recognise her services to social science. A sociologist, she has led the field as a founder of the Academy of Learned Societies for the Social Sciences, a former chair of the executive of the British Sociological Association and a past editor of the journal Sociology.

But now some of her senior colleagues in the field - including her own PhD supervisor - are criticising her for her role in what they term "the erosion" of the study of social science in her capacity as vice-chancellor of Keele University.

A debate on the damage to social sciences in Britain in the context of planned redundancies at Keele is to be held at a fringe session at the British Sociological Association's annual conference this month.

The session, which will take place on 28 March, is titled "Sociologists, the restructuring of higher education and the erosion of critical social science: the Keele case".

Some 38 of 67 lecturers at Keele's School of Economic and Management Studies - including social scientists and industrial relations experts - could lose their jobs in the wake of proposed changes.

Among seminar participants will be John Eldridge, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Glasgow and a former president and chairman of the BSA. He was also Professor Finch's doctoral supervisor.

He said: "My long-standing concern ... is that the social sciences should be sustained and should flourish in modern universities.

"Market forces are often referred to as justification or rationalisation for change. It is a term that is sometimes (used) to justify something that you want to do anyway.

"We shouldn't make it too easy to resort to market forces as a reason for changes, and we shouldn't be thinking of anything approaching compulsory redundancies, which it is difficult to see as absolutely necessary to bring about change."

Professor Eldridge said it was important that social scientists stood up for their field. "Other disciplines have got clobbered in other contexts and departments have disappeared, and it is the task of professional groups to defend their corner."

Also taking part in the seminar is Nickie Charles, director of the Centre for Women and Gender Studies at the University of Warwick, who said that all sociologists were concerned about what was happening.

"The social sciences are in a lot of ways the poor relatives of other disciplines," she said. "The position of the social sciences is becoming, I think, a little bit precarious - not overall, but at some universities.

"With a lot of restructuring going on, it is sometimes the social sciences that get it in the neck."

Professor Charles said she accepted that Professor Finch, as a vice-chancellor, had to think of her institution rather than her own discipline, but added: "From the point of view of us rank-and-file social sciences, it seems particularly ironic."

Times Higher Education understands that Hugh Willmott, professor of organisational studies at Cardiff University, is also due to contribute to the debate, which is being organised by Tony Elger of Warwick's Centre for Comparative Labour Studies.

In a statement, Keele says the institution "is strongly committed to the social sciences, a commitment reflected by major capital investment of £3 million into a purpose-built research centre for our School of Humanities and Social Sciences, which will open this summer.

"The university is well known for sociological research and teaching and continues to invest in staff appointments and infrastructure to support this major area of academic strength," it says.

The BSA said it noted the concerns of "several bodies" about the restructuring at Keele, adding that it had chosen not to endorse the seminar as no sociology programmes were directly affected. It added: "We wish to express sympathy for colleagues who may be affected."

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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