The University of Liverpool is currently bogged down in controversy after it was revealed to be considering scrapping three of its academic departments. It should be remembered that, in abstract, it is by no means unusual for a university to close or restructure “failing” departments. What is surprising here is that the departments at the centre of this furore include the key humanities areas of politics and philosophy.
While this remarkable situation has brought with it the attention of the national media, there are wider implications that could have an important impact upon universities across the UK.
However unpopular it may be, we must recognise that there is an argument to be made derived from a strictly economic perspective. With Liverpool deans claiming that the university is unable to sustain below-par departments, the long-term insufficiency of higher-education funding is shown to be in stark conflict with the continual political pressure for excellence. If Liverpool is to hold onto its reputation as a key Russell Group institution, it is simply not good enough to maintain mediocrity; especially in an environment where prestige is everything. Those of a strictly free-market persuasion could argue that Liverpool has the chance to pioneer a new model of subject specialisation – common among the post-1992 universities but not among the older, more prestigious universities in the country. While such a restructuring would prove controversial and—as threatened strikes by Liverpool academics would imply—potentially ruinous to the careers of a large number of university staff, such a move may be necessary in the long run for a number of universities struggling financially.
Yet, in this circumstance, such an argument doesn’t sit well. For starters, it is based on a weak set of foundations. An admittedly poor Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) result has little bearing on the overall profitability of a department; instead, it impacts solely on research funding for the upcoming RAE period. This may affect the jobs of academic researchers, but it by no means writes off a whole department—let alone three—as unsustainable, unworkable or "failing". If there are still students coming in, so too follows the money.
Moreover, there is increasing dissent among the academic community about the way in which RAE assessments are conducted. Do they give an accurate representation of a department’s four-year body of work? As John Sutherland, an emeritus professor at University College London asked, are all the submissions even read?
Writing in The Guardian, he outlined the level of work involved in assessing all of Britain’s research output: “The maths of the operation looked daunting, verging on superhuman. Take my subject area, English. Some 110 departments, with, on average, 25 fulltime or equivalent staff, each required to turn out four samples of published work: say an average of 200 pages per colleague. Roughly half a million pages then, some 30,000 for each of the dozen-and-a-half members of the panel.” Stunningly, this represents the output of only a single subject area.
Professor Sutherland goes on to give anecdotal evidence that suggests much of the sizable volume of research goes unread, citing one department where “a third [of RAE submissions, sealed by administrative staff] looked exactly as they had when they were sent out. I saw them with my own eyes. What to make of it?”
If the University of Liverpool’s at-risk departments are in such a position on the back of RAE assessments alone, one has to wonder whether a sensible decision, based upon economic necessity, has been taken? The RAE assessment is not perfect—even if it is not flawed to the extent that Professor Sutherland might worry—and should not be taken to have any greater level of objectivity than, for example, the Mercury Music Prize or Man Booker Award. Deciding to dissolve three departments on the back of poor assessment results smacks of knee-jerk reactionism; precisely the sort of action which academia is supposed to be above.