On Wednesday 18th, over 200 students and staff demonstrated at the University of Birmingham as members of Senate arrived for their meeting. Slogans included “Students not Starbucks”, a reference to the multi-million pound refurbishment of the Muirhead Tower which now incorporates a Starbucks in its reception area, but no reception staff. One of the student speakers remarked that they now have more choice in the kinds of coffee that they can get there than in the range of courses offered to undergraduates.
The campaigners are fighting a proposal to close the University’s Sociology Department, and its associated Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Culture, amidst growing concern about the University’s entire strategy for managing the social sciences.
The closure proposal follows a review of the Department’s teaching and research activities which, critics claim, is based on flawed evidence and lacks legitimacy. This would be the third time the University has closed the Sociology Department, with the most recent closure being in 2002 (the Department re-opened in its present form in 2004). The current proposal would lead to substantial redundancies and uncertainty for students currently midway through their degrees.
The British Sociological Association (BSA) has expressed serious concerns about the closure threat. In a recent letter to the Times Higher Educational Supplement (29 October) the BSA’s Council stated that: “It is inconceivable that any serious university with a mission to serve its region and wider society can abandon a commitment to high-quality and high quantity sociology” and has urged “the relevant decision-makers at Birmingham” to reconsider.
The review of the Sociology Department is one of a series being conducted or planned across the University which are causing increasing disquiet. Earlier this year it was announced that the Institute of Local Government Studies would be restructured with a number of redundancies.
In October, the Birmingham Branch of the University and College Union (UCU) criticised Birmingham’s review processes for a lack of openness, transparency and accountability. With regard to Sociology it noted that “The Department appears to have had little input into the information and documentation used by the review panel, no members of the Department have been included on the review panel, the external assessors on the panel appear to have had no opportunity to meet with staff and students from the Department.”
The Union added that if reviews “are not conducted objectively and fairly with proper and open involvement of staff and unions, they can appear to be cynical ploys misused by management to force through reductions in staffing levels and even compulsory redundancies without proper consideration and discussion.”
UCU asked to see the report back in September, but this was refused on the grounds that it was a management document. Union members and staff were not allowed to see it until the statutory consultation period for redundancies had commenced. Dr. William Edmondson, President of Birmingham UCU, said “there were 6 options for consideration but they were never released until management had made their decision. This is disgraceful. The University of Birmingham management have no idea of what the word ‘consultation’ means.”
However, at the Senate meeting the University management appeared to be back-pedalling, and insisted that no decision had yet been made, and that all six options plus others were still under consideration. This gives the campaigners some cause for hope.
Staff and students are calling on the University’s governing body to reject the closure recommendations and to establish a new and transparent review that includes all stakeholders, lifts the threat of redundancies and addresses the institution’s wider strategy for the social sciences. They are also calling on support from the academic and student community through an online petition and email campaign.
A decision will be taken by the University Council on November 26th.
You can sign the petition to keep Sociology at Birmingham here: