We are surely all aware of the controversy surrounding the closure of UEA’s beloved School of Music. But if we look slightly deeper, if we go beyond our own department, it becomes clear something rather more sinister is afoot.
As regards the School of Music, there are many people who will be sad to see it go. “It’s a shame,” said Anne Forbes, a local resident and long-standing member of choirs based in Music. “We would be very sad to see the School of Music close.”
However, as far as the University is concerned, new pressures mean a music school has become a liability. Funding is becoming increasingly dependent on the results of the Research Excellence Framework, in which the quality of a department’s research is graded from one to five. A recent development means only research scoring four or over will secure full funding, even though research scoring two is still considered impressive. This places additional pressure on departments, especially small ones such as Music who have been told in the past to concentrate on increasing their student numbers.
The pressure to increase student numbers is another factor causing trouble for small departments. Students with grades of AAB or above are now a valuable commodity, as from this year they are the only students which can be recruited freely, with no restriction on numbers. This is forcing universities to compete for their favour, and consequently departments are being judged much more on their ability to attract this calibre of student.
Music has fallen victim to a new, market-based approach to administration that is becoming more and more common. A degree is now being judged solely on its ability to attract students to a university, and perhaps more worryingly on its ability to prepare a student for a career. This may sound perfectly reasonable, but it does not take into account the simplistic view of the matter that is being taken by many in positions of influence. The prevailing attitude is that a “good” degree is a skills-based, vocational degree, leading directly to a career, or a science degree.
This may be seen further by the prevalence of science, technology and skills organisations among the partners cited by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the department under which, somewhat illogically, university policy comes.
In light of this attitude, the closure of our School of Music must be regarded as part of a disturbing trend which appears to be developing. The Philosophy department at Middlesex University and the Classics department at Royal Holloway have suffered similarly, and it seems clear that universities are being forced to close or merge their small humanities departments in order to preserve as much funding as possible for larger ones. Universities are blameless. They are being forced, for reasons of finance, to make difficult decisions. As Vice-Chancellor Edward Acton states: “In an ideal world this wouldn’t be happening.”
It is clear, then, that the core problem lies with the attitudes of those at the top. There are many reasons why these are incorrect, not least of which is the fact that while a humanities degree may not offer a direct path to a career, it teaches core skills of language, communication and critical thinking which are obviously essential if you want to achieve anything to a high standard. There is also the fact that specialist expertise has long been a selling point for British academia, an attitude it might be expected would be encouraged in the current finance and skills-based environment. “The whole thing about university is variety,” claims Richard Walters, an electrical engineer and former school governor. “If small departments close universities will become homogenised, which is something no-one wants to see happen.”
On a more fundamental level, it can also be argued that scrapping humanities departments in order to focus more money and resources on science is a false economy, as a humanities degree costs much less and attracts just as many if not more students to a university, and contributes just as much to the future economy as the government-funded work of a lab.
Sadly, this frightening trend seems only to be gathering pace. The School of Music will almost certainly not be the last to be destroyed in this way. It is therefore up to us to do something about it. We must show those in power that we consider it their responsibility to recognise the value of a humanities degree. We must remind the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills of their promise to ensure “excellence in teaching and research.”
To achieve this, an official government e-petition has been set up to try and force the government to listen to our concerns. Click here to sign it. We can force the government to listen. It is time we stopped the devastating trend that is emerging, of sacrificing the skills of language and thought for an illogical and, I suspect, ultimately futile focus on the purely technical.