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Saving Philosophy and Middlesex University Management

By Suman Gupta, 20 May 2010

If the campaign to reverse the decision by Middlesex University’s management to close the Philosophy Department were successful, and campaigners could claim an immediate victory, that would seem to be an end of the affair. But it wouldn’t really be so: no doubt, while appearing to give way the university management would put in strict conditions on recruitment and external research income, and the possibility of closure will hang like Damocles’ sword over the Department. The broader reasons why closure was mooted in the first instance would remain untouched and no more than a small institution-specific step would be achieved. If the campaign were unsuccessful, and the Philosophy Department eventually shuts down and current students are allowed to finish and staff redeployed or made redundant, in a short time it would all be cold news – campaigners would cut their losses and move on to the next department closure somewhere, university management and the government bureaucratic aegis which supports it would continue unabated. The news would be as cold as that of the closure of Cultural Studies in Birmingham in 2002.

Some attention needs to given to the ostensible perspective of academic management in Middlesex University (and generally in Britain) to begin to come to grips with the broader implications. The closure of Middlesex’s Philosophy Department has been handled in a particularly ham-handed and obtuse fashion. In a way that is useful for those concerned about dubious bureaucratic practices in UK academia: it focalizes attention on an evidenced reality, renders the stakes for staff and students immediate, raises pressing concerns in the media and among campaigners. That usefulness extends the other way too, to the bureaucratic perspective: by focalizing attention the specific institutional situation distracts from the broad and increasingly irrational organization of teaching and research in the UK – the transient problem of a particular institution absorbs the energies that should be directed to a growing and abiding problem for academia at large.

The management of Middlesex University has gone about the closure of the Philosophy Department in a particularly ham-handed way, I have said – that is itself a statement of sorts, a message, from the management. They needn’t have gone about it thus. There are well-worn management techniques to effectively close departments by slow attrition which do not attract much attention – such as merging departments and ‘restructuring’, cutting and relocating courses gradually, freezing appointments, and so on. If so inclined, there are also tested management techniques to rejuvenate departments and programmes which may be suffering in terms of recruitment and research income. These are unstable and shifting indicators. As it happens, Middlesex management chose neither: they specifically chose the crudest way of exercising power, the abrasively blunt approach. The bluntness is exacerbated by the fact that the Philosophy Department is in fact a successful one: 5 graded in the 2001 RAE, ranked 13th of 41 institutions in the 2008 RAE, with 6 staff out of 733 generating 5% of the university’s research income, enjoying the esteem of philosophers internationally (the response to the news is ample demonstration, but that was clear enough from publications and activities there), enjoying the commitment of students, and with recruitment problems which seem far from insuperable (and reputation goes a long way in solving them). So, there were several options open to the management – reasonably, to capitalize on the strengths of a strong department and turn the recruitment deficits around; bloody-mindedly, to slowly break down the department and effectively dissolve it. But Middlesex management chose the most abrasive: why? The abrasive gesture is a statement, and it needs to be read to understand the broader implications in question. What is the management saying through this gesture?

Obviously, this is a performative gesture of macho management, a statement of power. It comes with the pugnaciousness as “zero-tolerance” policing, or being “tough” on immigration and not a “soft-touch” (a sure vote-winner). Here we have academic management asserting itself, being seen as tough, with regard to those who engage in the ground-level work of academia -- researchers, teachers, students – much as immigration departments flex muscles to discourage potential immigrants and asylum speakers, police and military make examples of “terrorist suspects” and “fundamentalists”. There is an us-managers and you-academics air about this episode: us-managers are not working with you-academics, us-managers are following an autonomous procedure of assessing things and making decisions to which you-academics are simply subject – us-managers are tough when we catch you-academics out. I do not mean that managers and academics are different people, they are obviously often the same people – students, researchers, teachers who have become managers. It is more the case that having become managers, with that cap on, an imperative descends to make the us/you distinction and assume the prerogative of the autonomous procedures and policies of management. Naturally our curiosity about those autonomous procedures and policies is aroused. Middlesex management has given some hints about these.

The arguments for cutting the Philosophy Department given by Middlesex management have been predominantly about teaching, and very little about research. Some mutterings were heard (from a university management spokesman) about Philosophy making only a 5% contribution to HEFCE quality-related grants – as if the number 5 would immediately be seen as a small one, and readers would be silly enough not to ask about the proportion of staff generating that 5%. But the arguments given were about teaching really, about under-recruitment and Philosophy programmes having to be subsidized by other departments. In almost all universities in Britain there are programmes which are happily subsidized by other departments, because these departments can see the value of having those programmes – it is absurd to assume that in a university or faculty budget each unit has to be demonstrably and similarly profit-making. The profits accrue to the faculty or university as a whole through having a diverse provision, even if those profits are economically accounted to some units and not others. Besides, any unit – especially a reputable one – can be turned around in this respect with some planning and investment. In themselves, the management’s arguments are dodgy: the point to note is how determinedly success in research terms was discounted against teaching terms. Teaching issues were being used, to put it otherwise, to discount Middlesex Philosophy’s standing as a research entity, as a centre for graduate and higher research. The rationale of thus pitching teaching against research for Philosophy in Middlesex becomes clearer as we go deeper into the issue.

The arguments about teaching have to do with government policies about teaching. With Peter Mandelson as spokesman (now happily gone, but what comes instead?), the government policy has been to divide teaching areas into four bands from A to D, with Humanities falling primarily in D and a number of vocational/applied areas and so-called STEM subjects (Science, technology, Engineering, Mathematics) in the others. Public funding for higher education has been redirected primarily towards the other bands at the expense of the D band, on the grounds that they are more useful to employers and industry and therefore more economically productive. This is the equivalent in the area of Higher Education teaching of the impact policies for academic research, and suffers from the same irrationalities in economic accounting terms as in any relevant terms. The idea appears to be to kill off the teaching of Humanities areas unless it can undertake (and champion) narrowly-defined profit-generation and self-funding, just as impact policies are designed to kill the Humanities unless it can balance books in irrelevant corporate accounting terms. The kind of nonsense that I have been discussing at No Impact Notes ( for research impact policies have direct counterparts in the teaching area banding scheme. It seems, as the Dean of Arts in Middlesex has observed, that Middlesex University has received two letters in April 2010 from HEFCE “for switches from band D subjects to those in the higher-earning C and B bands, which include business, vocational and STEM subjects. He said this would allow Middlesex to generate more income at a time when student recruitment was subject to a national cap”. In other words, the macho management of Middlesex University in this instance is at one with a broader government policy initiative.

The two letters from HEFCE are interesting: have similar letters been sent to all universities? I don’t know. Were such sent to the so-called Russell Group universities? Were those received in Middlesex with particular reference to Philosophy? Middlesex is a post-1992 university, a former polytechnic, which used to be devoted primarily to vocationally-oriented higher education. Has it mainly been such universities which have received these letters? I am in an area of pure speculation here, but not implausible speculation. It was possibly not a pure coincidence that the advent of polytechnics as universities in 1992 coincided with the institutionalisation of research assessment, the RAE. Perhaps bureaucratic thinking at the time was that while the widened university-status could be perceivably touted as provision of mass higher education, the RAE and other modes of research funding would sift the grain from the chaff and the distinctions (ultimately class distinctions in an increasingly class-blurred or class-mobile society) of prestige and elitism in the university sector would be naturally maintained. From this perspective, and despite ongoing inequity in actual research funding, the RAE was a debacle because it showed that a strong research culture and productivity could be demonstrated for given areas across the sector – including in former polytechnics. Philosophy in Middlesex is an excellent example of unexpected and inconvenient strength in those terms. Rather than clarify the naturalness of the elite stratum in the university sector, the RAE blurred the picture. Perhaps the impact policies, and the REF, and the banding of teaching areas are moves to reinsert clarity between elites and others, of separating the academic from the vocational into separate rungs of institutions. Research impact is easier to demonstrate with investment from institutions which already receive the bulk of research funding; teaching can be encouraged in vocational areas elsewhere by throwing more public money there. Getting rid of Philosophy from Middlesex, and such inconvenient areas of strength from other post-1992 universities, and pushing towards the cultivation of selective A,B,C band teaching areas there would be a way of clarifying the status rungs – of re-emphasising a sector of ‘functional’ vocational training as differentiated from a sector of ‘prestigious’ academic teaching and research. Such zonalising of elites and masses has unsurprisingly a direct relation to the student bodies in terms of economic background and minorities (50% of Middlesex’s student body comes from ethnic minorities).

It is a curious irony – or perhaps not in the least curious – that it is Philosophy in Middlesex which is being chopped, the foremost Philosophy department in the post-1992 university sector in Britain. Philosophy is fundamentally tied in with critical thinking, at the heart of the Humanities. Philosophy has also conventionally been the preserve of the elites, parcel with the classics and ancient history in the Literae Humaniores when higher education itself was only for the moneyed. Philosophy in Middlesex University is associated with critical thinking against that tradition – philosophy with a socialist or new left tilt, and philosophy which is cognizant of its student constituency and its social location. Four Middlesex academics figure in the ten member editorial collective of the journal Radical Philosophy, the “journal of socialist and feminist philosophy”. The publications and projects of the department are consistent with that orientation. If teaching and research were linked in the minds of managers at any level, Middlesex would appear to be a salutary location where critical thinking could be fostered, so to speak, from below. If the government’s policy is to reinsert zones of academic elitism and vocationalism in academia, it would be useful to dumb down the potential of critical thinking among the relatively underprivileged and minorities – the functional cogs of the labour market. A department such as Philosophy at Middlesex would be the natural victim of such policies. Its closure would have to come with the bluntness of macho management by the executors of government policy inside academia. It would have to be presented as a matter of encouraging teaching at the expense of research. It would be implemented on some sort of spurious economic accounting argument, rather than on explicit ideological grounds – accounting logic is ideologically dictated.

Perhaps I am mistaken in reading as much in the institution-specific instance of macho management: by this account the episode is not so much due to managerial obtuseness as due to deliberate small-mindedness. The closure of the Philosophy department in Middlesex is not simply a matter of worry for the Humanities because another dynamic corner of the great flow of critical thinking is being forcibly removed, and insecurity is being cast across the academic sector. This is worse: it could be read as symptomatic of a drive to embed backward-looking, elitist, retrogressive structures at an institutional level in the Humanities and contain critical thinking in a systemic fashion. Perhaps this drive has already succeeded.

The campaign to save the Philosophy department in Middlesex would be (perhaps is already) caught in a terrible one-dimensionality if a singularity were made of this situation, and if its wider implications weren’t persistently foregrounded and linked to other situations, and if it weren’t underpinned by an ideological understanding of policy and accounting in academia now. Or, if any victory were thought of as closure, or any final closing moment of Philosophy in Middlesex were thought of as closure. The sit-ins and media coverage and statements from celebrities and gestures of solidarity are of the moment, but moments pass and one-dimensionality extends a steady and slow grip.

For articles on research impact policies being implemented in the UK see No Impact Notes,