London Metropolitan University: Crimes against Humanities

The university with the UK's highest proportion of poorer students is being assaulted by its own administration. All subject areas will be affected but Arts and Humanities are being decimated. Contrary to the Vice-Chancellor's claims, this was done without a full consultation

On 23rd April London Metropolitan University announced it was reducing the number of courses it offers from 557 to 160, a 70 per cent cut, and that it would offer the remaining courses at some of the lowest fees in the country. Contrary to the Vice-Chancellor’s claims that this had been done with full consultation, it has resulted in the forced resignation of one of his Deans and has been condemned for its “illegitimate process” by staff from the Humanities Faculty Forum.

Ultimately, the proposal represents an unprecedented attack on the right of poorer students to study arts and humanities subjects, even though the university has high enrolment figures and a good reputation.

All subject areas of the university will be affected but Arts and Humanities are being decimated. At the Sir John Cass Faculty of Arts Media and Design, of five hundred modules only seventy will survive. At the Faculty of Humanities, Arts & Languages, (HALE), only six courses will remain. Amongst those withdrawn for offer to students in 2012/13 are: History, Philosophy, Theatre Studies, Modern Languages, Caribbean Studies and Performing Arts.

London Metropolitan University is often dismissed as a post-92, polytechnic-turned-university clinging to the end of the academic League Tables, with high drop-out rates. This prejudice fails to recognise the university’s record, which stands for the right of those who are less advantaged to achieve in higher education. In 2010, Oxford was at the top and London Metropolitan at the bottom of the League Tables for academic achievement. This was reversed in the table recording the percentage of undergraduates coming from poorer backgrounds: London Met, top; Oxford, bottom.

Currently, poorer students represent over 57% of the University’s intake, the highest of any university in the country, yet last year the number of students failing to complete was just below average for the sector. The students are often the first from their families to become graduates and have been ill-served by their secondary education. Furthermore, London Metropolitan educates more black students than all 20 of the elite Russell Group of Universities put together - it is really representative of this country’s hugely diverse, cultural population.

A student speaking at an emergency meeting of the Humanities’ Faculty Forum put the case precisely: "With my school results, I would never have got to study history at other universities but I’ve had excellent teaching here and good results. So is the government saying that people like me don’t deserve to study history?" The withdrawal of history goes against both its popularity and its academic rating. The subject has an intake of about 40 a year and was recommended as excellent in the last review by the Quality Assurance Agency. With only four full-time staff it is placed 48th out of 93 UK departments in the Guardian League Table scoring above competitors such as Reading as well as Manchester which is in the Russell Group.

Other subjects in HALE ‘s execution list score equally highly. In the same League Tables, Philosophy is placed 29 out of 47 UK departments, even though it only has 2.6 members of staff, and is far smaller than all those departments below it, such as Leeds, Nottingham and Edinburgh, all in the Russell Group. Equally, Performing Arts enjoys an excellent reputation amongst competitors such as the Royal Colleges, has extensive professional links and recruits about 70 students a year. A mother of one of the first-year students recently wrote to the Vice-Chancellor:

“This course is extremely important for my daughter, and for all other students with little money to obtain a degree in this essential field, which on account of it’s unique and exceptional nature, opens up a wide range of employment  and career opportunities for those working class people who would otherwise have little chance of success in this world. The Arts are a vital component of the world we all live in and …..this particular course (unique to L.M.U), allows and enables graduates to become valuable contributors to society, in so many areas, not just as performing artists.”

It’s ironic that the gratuitous axing of these courses is being delivered by a Vice-Chancellor, Michael Gillies, educated in classics and music, and formerly President of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, and Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. In a Higher Education Policy Report published last month, “University Governance – Questions for a new era”, Gillies criticizes board members who protect their own interests at times of crisis rather than those of the institutions they serve. So why has this package of cuts, amounting to the radical restructuring of the university, been voted on by a sub-committee of three Board members rather than being properly presented to a full Board meeting?

Professor Gillies’ response to the Coalition Government’s onslaught on universities, and the humanities in particular, effectively buys into their policy of restructuring higher education according to competitive, market principles. London Metropolitan’s internal funding structure has been changed to a “Resource Allocation Model” which has effectively undermined the Faculty of Humanities. Previously, more profitable sectors supported less profitable sectors in order to sustain the diversity of the university’s offering, a practice common in many businesses. Under the new regime however, individual faculties are forced to tailor their offerings in order to stand alone, to balance their books and to maximize profit. Effectively, faculties now stand in competition with each other. Not all subjects in the arts and humanities are profitable in terms of student (customer) enrolment and overheads can be high, so according to this logic they must be cut, where previously they have been sustained. No matter that with these cuts go longer term, cultural aims; higher education is to be subjected to the same market logic as cars, computers or any other production-line commodity.

The Vice-Chancellor and his new Board of Governors are taking a unique position in response to Government agendas. At both ends of the spectrum, whether Oxford or Cambridge, with their huge assets and endowments to draw on, or Middlesex and East London, London Metropolitan’s closer, competitor universities, it has been recognized that £9,000 a year, the maximum tuition fee allowed by Government, reflects the degree of investment “required to deliver the quality of teaching and facilities that our students expect and deserve” (Vice-Chancellor, East London).

Professor Gillies has himself criticized the basis of Lord  Browne’s plans to reform higher education funding as ‘deeply flawed” and “poor policy with a minimal chance of orderly, consistent application” . Yet, almost alone in the country, he is endorsing the Government’s ill-informed expectation that a quality, graduate education can be delivered for around £6,000.  He has proposed that students enrolling for 2012/13 pay an average of £6843 for their university education with the cheapest courses on offer at £4,500. As a direct consequence, teaching workloads will increase, and the diversity of subjects, and in particular arts and humanities subjects, will no longer be on offer.

It is only two years since an incompetent board and top management delivered London Metropolitan into an acrimonious dispute with the Higher Education Funding Council which resulted in a penalty of £35 million for the misrepresentation of student numbers. Like the bankers, none of those responsible suffered economically though many slipped into the benefits of early retirement on full pension, and the Board of Governors was replaced. Over 300 staff, however, were forced into redundancy, many on minimal terms, and those who remained were undermined by the notoriety which blackwashed high levels of commitment and much excellent work.

Then as now, and in spite of this Vice-Chancellor’s professed support for a culture of open communication, there has been little meaningful consultation with either lecturers or students, the principal resource of any university. There continues to be a style of management summed up by Maurice Glaswell, Lecturer in Politics and recently-appointed Labour peer: “As an academic at LMU I lost count of the number of line managers that were assigned to supervise and assess me, but I do know that departmental meetings were abolished and academics had no decision-making power.”

At the Humanities Faculty it started with a review of undergraduate courses, whose operational guidelines were so unintelligible that neither the Dean nor senior management could reiterate them for course leaders to follow. When the decision was taken to axe 13 out of 19 programmes, the information was leaked to teaching and administrative staff days before the Academic Board which would endorse it. It went ahead in spite of a lobby by students and lecturers, and the presentation of a unanimous vote of no confidence taken at the Humanities’ Faculty Forum. This condemned not only the Dean, and his senior management team, but also the figures used to justify the proposals.

Once again, London Metropolitan is making inglorious history, with a combination of farcical incompetence and ruthless manipulation. There will be hundreds of redundancies across the university and the dispersal of teams skilled in their delivery of humanities and arts subjects. At a confrontational meeting between HALE staff and the Vice-Chancellor this week, demands were made for a review of decisions taken and a suspension of the redundancy programme on grounds of unfair and illegitimate process. When asked what his vision was for the future of the university Professor Gillies replied evasively, “2012/13 will tell the answer to that”. Do the Vice-Chancellor and Board of Governors not know the value of the portfolios they are carrying in taking such calculated risks?  Or is there another agenda? Is the university being downsized, the fees set and the faculties made self-standing ready for privatization? £6,000 fees is the limit which the Government will loan to students applying to private universities.

Those who would deride London Metropolitan University would be wise to take note. What is happening exemplifies the changes which this government intends to make in higher education generally: changes which threaten to reduce education, for some, to short term, utilitarian goals of “employability”, which widen the divide between rich and poor in this country, and which remove resources vitally needed by the next generation to play an informed role in creating a thriving, diverse future society. As for the Vice-Chancellor, once the restructuring is done, he will be well placed to move on into supra-management of this Government’s Higher Education policy. For his staff and students, however, the demise of arts and humanities education will be irreversible.