In the UK the axe is falling on philosophy departments. Nina Power reports from the frontline
Amidst the election coverage, the BP oil spill and a general feeling of impeding doom, the past months have seen an extraordinary thing: an international campaign to save a Philosophy department on the outskirts of North London. The announcement at the end of April that the entirety of the Middlesex Philosophy provision was to shut generated a huge and sustained wave of support. A petition to save the department has over 18,000 signatures to date, letters from high-profile academics all over the world have been published (signed by Alain Badiou, Judith Butler, Slavoj Žižek and Noam Chomsky, among others) and coverage of the closure and subsequent protests has been widely covered in the press. Enraged students occupied buildings on campus for two weeks, and well-attended rallies drew hundreds out to strange places at the end of the Piccadilly Line.
But why all the fuss? In our new age of austerity and the necessity of cuts to public funding, why such outrage over what surely seems to most to be the dispensable of subjects? For better or worse, the battle over Middlesex has come to symbolise a variety of struggles that will no doubt characterize the intellectual and financial landscape of Britain for years to come: the opposition between management and academia, the opposition between supposedly "useful" subjects and non-vocational pursuits, the retrenchment of ‘classical subjects’ in the top twenty elite Russell Group universities and away from former Polytechnics, as well as bigger questions about the future of Britain’s intellectual and cultural life. If the save Middlesex campaign "loses", the feeling goes, than universities will have more leeway to pillage and shut smaller, less successful departments in future.
The irony is that Middlesex Philosophy is not a failing department, but an acknowledged success. It met the university’s financial sustainability criterion for the forthcoming year, and BA applications are up 118 per cent. The postgraduate programme continues to have extremely healthy recruitment, due to its outstanding reputation in European philosophy, which draws students from across the world. The department is rated 13th best in the country, ahead of Warwick, Sussex, Glasgow, Durham and York, and is the highest-ranked ex-polytechnic for philosophy, as well as the most successful single department at Middlesex itself.
So what explains the seeming madness of Middlesex management? The answer is part financial, and part ideological. The university has decided that it can make more money from different kinds of students, namely those studying vocational and STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths). By increasingly the quantity of these students, management can receive more match-funding from the government, whilst keeping teaching costs to a minimum. Because arts and humanities students are cheaper (requiring only classrooms and the odd book), there is less profit from fees to be siphoned off by the university. If this sounds like academic diversity and range are being sacrificed in the name of a financial race to the bottom, then that’s because they are.
At the same time, following various suggestions from Peter Mandelson and Conservative think tanks, ex-polytechnics are being steered in the direction of vocational subjects, so that even if Britain no longer has any industry to speak of, the division between those who get to study academic subjects and those who do not will be reintroduced. Classical subjects will be returned to the middle and upper classes where they ‘belong’ and working-class students will be channelled into tourism studies and pointless foundation courses.
Regardless of what happens at Middlesex, and currently the university has suspended several students and Professors prompting a new round of international outrage, the anger that has followed the announcement of the closures highlights one thing: there are many, many people who will go to the wall to defend their right to study the apparently useless.
June update: It has been announced that the Centre for the Research of Modern European Philosophy will move to Kingston University – an at least partial victory for the campaign.