Birmingham

To appear in Guardian Education online, Thursday 15
August 2002

Term ended at the University of Birmingham on June 14.
2001-2 had been the best of my three years in Cultural Studies
and Sociology (CSS): the Sociology degree I had been brought
in to introduce was top of the Guardian rankings for the
third successive time, and its sister, Media, Culture and
Society (MCS) was close behind. Demand was enormously strong
with between 10 and 15 applicants for each place, postgraduate
recruitment was booming, and ESRC 1+3 recognition had been
achieved. Financially CSS was robust and set to expand.

The one disappointment had been in the RAE. In December
2001 we had learned that the Communication, Cultural and
Media Studies panel had awarded a 3A. This was a surprise
since, following rigorous internal review, there was confidence
that the target score (4) would be reached comfortably. The
Pro-Vice-Chancellor responsible for the RAE, an engineer,
had amended the original submission against my advice to
ensure – in his judgement – a 4. I had objected,
but was reminded that the RAE was his responsibility and
that I would thank him later for the interference.

The 3A result came as a shock. Nevertheless, CSS was just
four years old, with many young and new staff, and it had
developed a distinctive and innovative intellectual project
operating on the borders of Cultural Studies and Sociology.
Students’ reactions were enthusiastic and encouraging,
and initial scepticism from some staff had been overcome.
Of course, post-RAE research would need re-directing and
clearer targets set for the 2002-6 period, but CSS was fundamentally
strong and full of promise. It had fallen just below the
University target of a grade 4, so CSS responded to the RAE
with detailed plans for the next five years, for which it
got the backing of the School of Social Science to which
it belonged. There was reason to remain positive about the
future.

On June 20th I met with Stuart Croft, Head of School, to
review plans for the coming year. To my astonishment he told
me that he had received instructions to close CSS by the
following month, and that only four staff were to be retained
(out of 12.6 positions) to deliver the programmes that would
be relocated. Of the four ‘fixed and limited’ posts
to remain, one would be in Sociology, the rest in Cultural
Studies. A severance offer would be made, and if insufficient
numbers took this up, then redundancy notices would follow.

Job losses had never been considered a serious issue over
the previous six months. A 65 page University Plan, 2002-7
had recently passed through an unsuspecting and hurried Council.
In it a short paragraph made reference to CSS, but it contained
not a whisper about staff reductions.

The decision to decimate CSS came from Central Management
alone. Croft had received no feedback on the School of Social
Science’s strategy regarding CSS, yet now he believed
the situation was ‘non-negotiable’. There was
no point in seeking a meeting with the Vice-Chancellor since
all that remained was to implement the decision. Our meeting
ended, Croft instructed a secretary to inform the CSS staff
of the situation by e-mail. He refused to attend an emergency
department meeting, feeling he had nothing to say. Though
no explanation for the decision was provided, the University
has since issued statements that the 70 percent reduction
in CSS staffing was justified because there were ‘under-employed’ staff
elsewhere who could take over.

All staff in CSS took ‘voluntary’ severance.
They were appalled by the University’s behaviour and
convinced that quality programmes were undeliverable by just
four remaining staff. So they left together, in defence of
academic standards and intimidated by the threat of redundancy.
As Professor of Sociology my own position was untenable.
A full degree in Sociology, with well over 100 undergraduates,
is neither viable nor credible with a single Sociologist.
I also knew that excess expertise was not available elsewhere
in Birmingham – the Department of Social Policy and
Social Work, our closest cousin, promptly reported it had
nothing to offer. There were a couple of Political Sociologists
around, but these already contributed specialist options
to our degree and were set squarely in a Department of Political
Science and International Relations, a far cry from our Sociology
which advertises the ‘cultural turn’ as its central
concern.

Undergraduates were away on vacation so unable to comment,
but the fifty plus research students in CSS, who had been
ignored throughout, vigorously protested the University edict.
There have also been howls of outrage from around the world
and Birmingham’s reputation is sullied. A web site
(myweb.tiscali.co.uk/culturalstudies)
will track and document the situation.

Just three or four Central Managers, alone and aloof, have
ruined the University’s renowned world-wide ‘brand’,
the ‘Birmingham School’ of Cultural Studies.
They have thereby stemmed the strong supply of overseas research
students and the invigorating cosmopolitanism this brought
to Birmingham (as well as losing direct income well in excess
of £100,000 per annum). They have also devalued the
degrees and diminished the experiences of returning undergraduates,
some of whom are now seeking legal counsel regarding the
discrepancy between what was promised and what will be delivered.
Extraordinarily, the University is continuing to recruit
students to programmes which it insists are unchanged when
all the staff have left.

Meanwhile rumours circulate that a Political Scientist
(who personally led his own Department to a 3A) has agreed
to take over Sociology, lured by the offer of additional
posts, and a Philosopher who specialises in the study of
virtue is to be brought out of retirement to re-conceive
Cultural Studies. A research fellow and part-time lecturer
are being drafted in, and last year’s course materials
are being sought out as guides for stop-gap teachers. Meanwhile,
the CSS staff who worked so hard to make the MCS and Sociology
degrees amongst the best in the country, are out on the street,
their careers in ruins.Frank Webster was formerly Head of
Department, Cultural Studies and Sociology, at the University
of Birmingham.

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