If you’ve been following anything digital and archaeology-related in the last few weeks you’ll already know that Kings College London (23rd in the world university rankings last time I looked) is in the middle of some serious cutbacks. Rogueclassicism has a post on it with all the details.
As a result, they’re totally axing the palaeography chair, the only such post in the UK. I could go on and on about how important it is to understand ancient manuscripts properly, but frankly anyone with any brain knows this already. Exactly why Kings want to drop this seminal position is beyond me – particularly as the current incumbent, Prof Ganz, has a pretty good publication record and isn’t exactly a slacker.
I should say here I’m biased – he was my personal tutor for a short period during my BA – but I think the point is still important. There’s a petition against the closure of the post, if you would like to support it.
But that’s not the only cut. They’re also sacking a member of staff from the Art and Archaeology part of the Classics department. The rumor is that they will be requiring four members of staff to reapply for their own positions, one of whom won’t be successful and will get the sack. A pretty shitty way of dealing with it. Any of us who have worked for any of the County Councils will be familiar with this method of ‘restructuring’, but it still stinks.
The classics community is behind the beleaguered academics, and the general opinion is that this is an assault on the value of Classics and associated disciplines in universities, under the theme that it is a ‘sub-critical’ subject. There is some merit in this argument. In times of massive funding cuts to British universities, they have to cut something, and frankly is classics, archaeology and art really that critical? No, of course it doesn’t compare to hard sciences and engineering for its potential to add to our economy, benefit society and save us from energy poverty.
But how many science and engineering graduates actually go into those fields? Certainly many students from Asia who have primary industries to return to will find jobs in their subject. But British students have academia or a non-existent British industry. Most of our lot go on to become accountants and bankers, and it’s not like they’re more useful members of society than classicists. I like to hope at least classicists, historians and archaeologists have some sense of perspective on humanity and its interaction with the world, and are educated to have a broad-minded, moral outlook on life. It’s hard to study Greek philosophers without something rubbing off on you.
So if you’re wondering, like me, whether it’s worth doing anything to support the Kings Classics department, it’s worth considering the wider implications. Kings Classics is a small department, like history, classics, archaeology and anthropology departments across the country. And it’s pretty obvious that it’s the small departments, the ‘sub-critical’ departments, that are going to get the brunt of the ‘economising’ that will have to be made by almost every university.
You can guarantee that the management of many British universities will be watching how the Kings controversy plays out. They’ll be working out whether they can get away with the same thing, or whether the bad press and damage to their reputation will be too bad to make it worth while. If the Kings cuts slide through uncontested, I’ll be very surprised if we don’t see a wave of similar cuts across the rest of the British universities. And once small departments start to bear the brunt of cuts, what’s the chance of it escalating until they go the way of Kings’ Chemistry department, which is now nothing but dusty corridors and empty offices?
The knock-on effect of department closures and amputations won’t be felt in the archaeological industry for five to ten years, because of the high level of qualified people already in the job market. But by the time we notice it, it’ll be too late for an easy fix. Loosing these small departments will result in a reduction in the number of archaeologists qualifying, and a slow strangulation of the variety, multi-vocality and academic vigor that has put British archaeology ahead of any other country. By the time we notice the problems in industry, it’ll take decades of hard work to fix. Show Kings that their reputation is at risk, and that there’s more to a university than medical students, and we might just be able to stop this slow rot before it starts to kill off our discipline.