University of Liverpool mulls politics, philosophy, statistics department closures

 March 12, 2009         4 Comments

I’ve only just found about the University of Liverpool’s plans to close its politics, philosophy, statistics departments – apparently because it can’t be bothered with them any more. Several other departments also seem to be threatened.

While other universities are considering closing departments because of a de facto budget cut Liverpool is not and, reports The Telegraph, is mulling their closure because they are “not of the same exceptional standard”.

The subject piqued my interest because I studied Philosophy & Politics at UofL and, coincidentally, I happen to have written a graduate case study this week on my time at university and subsequent career.

I wasn’t a particularly good student. The subjects didn’t particularly interest me, I overindulged in certain extra-curricular activities – not all of which were insalubrious – and I didn’t feel particularly well-served by either department, though I can’t deny some of the formidable talents and intellects on display in either.

But regardless of my personal feelings, the idea of a red-brick university axing its philosophy and politics department because it doesn’t think it’s good enough seems baffling. As Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, says:

“Institutions do not build long-term reputations for excellence by axing departments on short-term results. The worst thing the university could do would be to rush into any redundancies or closures.”

John Pugh, writing in The Guardian, is similarly taken aback.

When studying at Liverpool I was taught by Professor AC Lloyd, a brilliant philosopher with a razor-sharp mind. Lloyd was of the old-fashioned persuasion that he shouldn’t publish a paper until he had something worth saying.As a result his output was low in quantity but high in quality. Under today’s quantitative-heavy peer-review systems, Dr Lloyd’s output level would likely be found unsatisfactory, and he would suffer accordingly.

Pugh hits on something that was evident back when I was at the university. Lecturers didn’t seem to have the time to, you know, lecture. They were never in their offices.

On one absurd occasion I had to physically march one of my tutors to another to discuss one of my marks as they hadn’t found the time to address it over the previous two weeks. Their offices were about 20 yards away from each other.

I interviewed the remarkable Benny Pollack not long before I graduated. Pollack had fled Chile in the 70’s in fear of his life and had wound up at Liverpool. I was interviewing him about Pinochet’s arrest in the UK, but the subject turned over the course of the afternoon to the university.

Pollack hinted that research was the order of the day and teaching students seemed to be less of a priority. He left the university shortly afterwards.

John Pugh suggests that the university has come to the conclusion that the departments aren’t pulling their weight thanks to the Research Assessment Exercise.

I’m not sufficiently familiar with the process or the document to comment and the results for the UofL departments are ostensibly poor, but Pugh appears to be on the money.

It seems like a desperately short-sighted and narrow-minded decision to dump these departments on the basis that their research activities are judged not up to scratch, but Liverpool was not known for its wisdom when I was a student there.

The university was ranked as one of the best in the country when I turned up in 1997 and it spent the next three years tumbling down the leagues.

As the editor of two student newspapers in the late 90’s I was spoilt for choice when it came to stories, there was a steady supply of clangers from the university. But there was nothing to match closing entire departments.

No doubt there are two sides to this and I’m not well-placed to guess the backgrounds to either, but I can’t help but feel sorry for first-year students at any of the threatened departments faced with another two years of uncertainty, disaffected staff and industrial action. Students never seemed to be the university’s strong point.

Strikes are planned and protests were held today. The best web page on this subject with plenty of analysis is on the Times Higher.

Comments

  1. Hey Robin, like you I wasn’t that impressed with the overall standard of teaching. Too many lecturers didn’t seem interested. But there were some gems including, of course, the aforementioned Benny Pollack.
    What you didn’t mention was what Benny went on to do when he quit Liverpool. He happened to be good mates with Ricardo Lagos, who had just been elected president of Chile. Lagos asked him if he knew anything about China. No, said Benny. Well, said Lagos, read up on it then pack your bags – you’re my new ambassador to China.

  2. I’d forgotten about that. I also neglected to mention that he cried off the first time I interviewed him because, as he explained, he had been drinking the previous night and was ‘as bad as a dog’!

    Fantastic man.

  3. This is spot on, Robin, and not just about Liverpool. Your journalistic instincts about what is really going on are as sharp as ever…

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