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Cloing Sociology at Birmingham (UK)

By John Holmwood, Nottingham University

The history of Sociology at Birmingham University has been fraught.  A Department of Sociology was first set up in 1964, but was closed in 1986. The University set up a Department of Cultural Studies and Sociology in 1991 only to close that Department in 2002. In 2004 it re-established the Department of Sociology, but in early November 2009, the Head of the College of Social Sciences announced his intention to close it and withdraw all its programmes (with the exception of a reduced undergraduate degree in Sociology to be taught by the Institute of Applied Social Studies). Sociology staff are  to be reduced from 17 to 3 with corresponding reductions in administrative staff from 3 to 1 (or none).

 This followed a review of the Department which was unprecedented in so far as all of its members were senior managers of the University and members of the management boards to which the review reported. There was no sociologist appointed to the review group and although respected external sociologists were asked to take on an advisory role, they were marginalised. The Department was not given a copy of the report until after the decision to close the Department was announced. The Department was not in deficit and its programmes are popular with students. Its undergraduate degree in Sociology is ranked 4th out of 84 in the Guardian league tables, while its undergraduate degree in Media, Culture and Society is ranked 5th out of 79. 

 [Keep Sociology at Birmingham] The situation at Birmingham is not unique and is indicative of the pressures that all academic activity is under in the face of neo-liberal modes of governance of higher education. Management style at Birmingham is perhaps unusually harsh and unyielding, but many of its characteristics are shared by other Universities. Essentially, neo-liberal governance has involved the de-regulation of the market sectors of the economy alongside the search for proxy measures for auditing the public sector (most UK Universities receive the bulk of their income from Government sources), such as the Research Assessment Exercise which is used to determine levels of funding and also creates various league tables against which Universities measure their performance and that of their constituent Departments. The paradox of this situation is very evident in the recent financial crisis brought about by an under-regulated banking system where the bail-out of banks by the public purse is now putting pressure on public services such as education. The threat to Sociology at Birmingham comes at a time when all Universities are expecting severely reduced budgets and cutbacks in hiring.

 Neo-liberal governance has also transformed the internal relations within Universities as managerial hierarchies replace collegial relations. The sociology of organisation suggests that ‘knowledge industries’ should be relatively flat and de-centred structures. In contrast, the forms of audit that determine University funding in the UK encourage centralised management structures and hierarchical relations. Universities are run like Corporations with Executive Boards (and equivalent remuneration), and collegiate bodies such as Faculty and Senate allowed to atrophy.

 Sociologists at Birmingham put up a fierce resistance to closure, with a web-site and e-petition launched within hours of the announcement of closure.  The e-petition has gathered more than 7,000 signatures and there have been messages of support from Sociological Associations across the globe. Students in the Department also organised petitions and campaigns showing that the internet and traditional rallies and demonstrations are incredibly effective. Local Members of Parliament also joined the campaign, and there was excellent media coverage. The damage to the reputation of the University will be great if it does not back away from its plans to close Sociology. However, throughout it all, the University has remained implacable, refusing to meet with the MPs, refusing to discuss the Department’s reasoned response to the review report, and disallowing the Department from presenting papers at Council (the decision-making body of the University). Statutes of the University require a period of ‘consultation’ when a decision to close a department is made. For the moment, the University is pretending that the consultation is real and that ‘all options’ are under discussion. The final decision will be made in February, but, in the meantime, the planning for redundancies continues. Redundancies are also now threatened at other Universities, including University of Sussex, which is mounting a strong campaign.   Universities in the UK, as elsewhere, are entering a period of financial crisis, which is also a moment of social and political crisis in the global system. This is a time when critically relevant social science is an urgent necessity, but the hierarchical organisation of Universities and their neo-liberal agenda seeks to contain and constrain that critique by keeping our heads bowed down to local matters. The global crisis requires a global response by sociologists operating across borders.

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