How could Philosophy at Middlesex be financially sustainable with an annual average of only 12 undergraduate students over the last 3 years?
This figure refers to single honours BA students only. It is not the number of undergraduate students taking Philosophy modules – there are also students from other disciplines – and we have postgraduate programmes. According to the School of Arts & Education, by its ‘credit count’ method, the ‘full-time equivalent’ number of students taught in Philosophy this year (2009-10) is 112.
But is even this number enough to sustain a research-active Philosophy group?
There are currently only four academic members of staff in Philosophy whose salaries are paid out of the ‘core’ budget of the School of Arts & Education. The fees income is more than sufficient for that. Two other Philosophy staff (one on a temporary contract) are on the Philosophy Research budget (what is called ‘QR’).
But is that large enough?
The annual income from the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) received by the university for Philosophy for 2009-10 was £173, 260. The cost of the two staff on the Philosophy research budget (including what they call the ‘on costs’ of national insurance and pension contributions) is less than half that figure.
Are these the only sources of income in Philosophy?
No. Philosophy also makes applications for external research funding: a single AHRC grant awarded for 2006-09 was for the sum of £230,000. Another large research project grant application was submitted recently. The Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy at Middlesex has also hosted two Leverhulme Research Fellowships in the last six years.
Don’t subjects also have to make an additional contribution to university costs?
Yes. In addition to its contribution to the management and administrative costs of its school, a subject group at Middlesex University is expected to make a ‘contribution’ to the ‘centre’. This currently stands at a minimum requirement of 55%. It is not possible to say how – if at all – the overall sum relates to the university’s actual central expenditure on facilities for teaching and research.
As it stands (by what they call ‘the credit count’ method of calculation), the Philosophy & Religious Studies subject group makes a 53% ‘contribution’. Using the figures projected for recruitment by the university admissions, on the basis of applications received (with Philosophy undergraduate applications up 118% for 2010-11), if programmes had remained open, the contribution from Philosophy & Religious Studies would have risen to 59% for 2010-11.
So Philosophy & Religious Studies met the university’s financial sustainability criterion for next academic year.
So if it’s not about the sustainability of the Philosophy & Religious Studies subject group – on the university’s own financial criteria – why are the Philosophy programmes all being closed?
Good question. The Middlesex University press statement claims that “the university follows rigorous criteria to assess the sustainability of its courses” – although it is careful not to claim that the decision to close Philosophy was the result of the application of these criteria.
In fact, during March and April, staff were given a series of constantly changing criteria by the university management in the process leading up to the confirmation of the decision. The apparently crucial one emerged only after the decision for closure had already been made.
What was the justification cited?
The reason cited is primarily financial – but it is not a question of the financial sustainability of the subject area, as usually understood. Rather, it is about the additional income that the university will receive from the government if it shifts to teaching more students in other kinds of subject.
The dean of Arts & Education told Philosophy staff on 26 April that the university will generate more revenue if it shifts its resources to other kind of subjects – from what is called ‘Band D’ to ‘Bands B and C’ students.
What is this classification of students on a scale of A to D?
The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) funds universities for students at four different levels depending on the subject studied by the student. ‘Band A’ students (eg clinical medicine) receive the most funds, ‘Band D’ students (classroom based activities), receive the least.
Bands B and C involve various sorts of laboratory or workshop/studio based activities. The move from D to C is one towards what are often thought of as more ‘vocational’ subjects, involving a greater degree of ‘training’.
So it is about stopping teaching non-vocational arts and humanities subjects?
Presumably, this financial logic applies across the whole sector. Given the cap on student numbers and universities’ needs to generate more income, non-vocational arts and humanities subjects could be closed down all over the place?
Yes. But there are two other things to bear in mind here. First, Band B and C students are funded at a higher level because they are supposed to require a higher level of spending on their education.
Switching bands should therefore not generate any spare income. If it does, it will be because these students are not receiving the facilities for which they are being funded by the government. The rationale for the switch thus indicates that this is bad news for these other kinds of student.
Second, there is always more than one strategic option open to a university faced with a particular set of constraints. Middlesex University has declared the decision to close Philosophy ‘unavoidable’. It involves it giving up its previous research policy of ‘supporting excellence in research’ and thereby effectively giving up on ‘academic reputation’ as a significant factor in its market position.
Yet some other universities in a similar situation are taking the opposite course of action – intensifying their focus on research excellence and emphasising the integration of research into teaching – in order to build ‘reputation’. Some are also emphasising the practical need for an element of humanities or ‘liberal arts’ teaching across the whole range of subject provision.
A radical shrinkage in non-vocational arts and humanities subjects is therefore certainly not ‘unavoidable’. However, given the narrowly corporate management culture sweeping through UK universities, it is a clear and present danger.
Are any other factors involved?
Yes. The above concerns only the justification given by the dean to Philosophy staff. There are more immediate financial reasons – to do with the group’s success in generating income – connected with the ‘financialisation’ of the economics of universities and the search for short-term financial gains. These relate to broader changes in the character of universities, and of Middlesex University in particular.
What are these factors?
They concern income derived from sources other than teaching. As part of its sustainability strategy, Philosophy & Religious Studies has multiple sources of income. Two of these – research income from RAE 2008 and income from what they call ‘collaborative programmes’ with religious colleges (essentially accrediting and validating programmes in other institutions) – are independent of the employment of staff who teach and research.
Surely you need academic staff in a subject to receive research income for it from RAE 2008?!
One would think so. However, the RAE rewards past performance going forward and, we are told, universities have complete strategic freedom to redeploy the money internally. It seems that RAE 2008 monies will come to the university until August 2014, whether or not the university continues to employ academic staff in the subject that earned them.
Indeed, if as many believe, the incoming government delays the next exercise by 2 years, to 2015, Middlesex will continue to receive RAE money for Philosophy for six more years, until August 2016, whether it employs any philosophers or not. The total sum is likely to be close to £1 million.
Wow! So it was its very success that made Philosophy vulnerable?
In part, yes – if a university administration is prepared to asset-strip its own institution for short-term gain.
What will HEFCE think of this?
We don’t know. A journalist should ask them.
It’s probably not what they had in mind when they gave universities free rein for the strategic redeployment of RAE monies. Their policy suggests they expect universities to use their income primarily to sustain ‘research excellence’, but they do also encourage them towards certain areas, the ‘STEM’ subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. These two things are increasingly coming into conflict with each other.
How do they encourage universities to shift resources towards the STEM subjects in research?
By giving different subjects different allocations per capita of academic staff for the same ratings. Humanities subjects get far less than other areas. The RAE allocation for Philosophy, nationally, per capita, dropped significantly between RAE 2001 and RAE 2008.
On the other hand, the RAE increasing rewards success at the highest end of the scale over the middle of the scale, in all subjects, and Philosophy is the highest research-rated subject in the university.
So even if the university were to reinvest this money in research in other areas (which is by no means certain) – at the cost of having significantly reduced the university’s educational and research portfolio, and denied a distinctive educational opportunity to hundreds of students, many with ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds for postgraduate work in Philosophy – they would be far from guaranteed an equivalent return. But this is the kind of thing universities are increasingly prepared to do to please their political masters in the struggle for funding.
How is this connected to the ‘financialisation’ of economics of universities?
Universities in Britain now believe they can, and should, set up and close down production in areas of university teaching and research in exactly the same way as with any other kind of commodity, in response to short-term changes in HEFCE’s funding policies. They have accepted HEFCE’s use of crude financial instruments to carry out the government’s ‘skills and training’ oriented policy objectives for the universities.
What is at stake here, ultimately?
The very concept of education.