The Archaeology department and the Schools of Languages and Cultures (SLC) at the University of Sheffield fight for their future. The scandal ridden review process of the Archaeology department highlights the need for democratic control of universities. The University Executive Board (UEB) has been lying to students, disposed of meeting transcripts, and shows gross ignorance of the subjects taught at the University.
The Pro-Vice Chancellor Gill Valentine, in charge of the Archaeology review process, infamously described the students at the Archaeology department as “Aldi students”. This happened in response to a proposal to lower the admission requirements for the undergraduate course, in order to meet the student number targets, set by the UEB. Gill Valentine reportedly explained that the University of Sheffield is more of a “Marks and Spencer’s brand” and that lowering the requirements would “dilute the brand”. The local newspaper the Star, reports that transcripts of this meeting have been disposed of. “They don’t like that we have students from non-traditional pathways – in my opinion this makes the department such an inclusive and exciting space”, says Nicholas Clarke, a postgraduate researcher at the Archaeology department. “The University of Sheffield was founded on public subscriptions. We are an elite institution, but not elitist” shouted an angry professor at a joint rally of the two endangered departments. The potential closure of the Archaeology department, which is famed for its research, is also another slap in the face for postgraduate researchers of the department. After sixteen months of disruption due to the pandemic and a ban of in-person research activities, their research will be severely disrupted yet again.
Gill Valentine’s apparent attitude towards students is reflected in her treatment of students and postgraduate researchers during the review process. The Student Union has filed a complaint against the university for unethically misleading students about the goals of the process in Archaeology and about misleading students about the extent of the proposed changes at the School of Languages and Culture (SLC). Postgraduate Researchers heard about the potential closure of the department through social media: “We were told we are taking part in a survey about how to improve the department”, Nicholas continues, “I heard about all this when it kicked off in the social media! They don’t even try to be transparent; all these decisions are being made behind closed doors, and we don’t have a say in them at all!” A SLC student highlights: “I’m in the middle of my degree and what they are proposing is not the same quality, breadth or depth of the degree I signed up for. What they claim is just wrong”.
Incompetence of management
The proposed changes and closures mean that over 50 jobs are at risk and lasting damage is done to the Arts and Humanities. Even in capitalist terms, this seems extremely short-sighted, as the Faculty of Arts and Humanities is one of the few that pushed Sheffield into the Top100 rankings in the world. Umberto Albarella sums it up: “Everything is measured in money, by people who apparently don’t understand an awful lot about how to manage money.”
Prof. Phil Swanson at the SLC is shocked at how little the management team understands the subjects taught in his department: “The proposal is so bad, it is hard to find words for just how bad it is. Everyone who understands a little bit about what the department does, is in disbelief. They won’t listen.”
Obscure Governance Structures
The local University and College Union (UCU) branch has collected evidence of “dubious research methods”, “potential misrepresentation of the goals of the process” and disappearing governance papers from the university’s websites. The branch president, Sarah Staniland highlights how departments have been disempowered and established bodies are circumvented by unelected sub-groups and “working groups” at faculty level. This centralises decision-making power in the hands of the University Executive Board (UEB) – if only because they are the only ones knowing about the existence of these subgroups. The Senate, one of the elected governance bodies with academic representation, has been disempowered. This was highlighted when a vote in Senate about the future of the Archaeology department was blocked by the chair, who also happens to be the chair of the UEB in late June. Before the Council meets on 12th of July with the final say on the matter, the UCU branch has mobilised for another rally on 9th of July, 11am. The branch is prepared for industrial action if the decision is not reversed by the Council: “This needs to be the line we draw in the sand!” shouted Prof. Swanson at the June rally.
Ongoing attacks and worsening conditions
These proposed cuts are only the latest in a year long attack on jobs and conditions that students and staff have been fighting off during the pandemic. Many departments struggled through the first year of the pandemic understaffed. After the UEB announced a spending stop and 15% budget cut last June, casualised staff and teaching assistants were without a job overnight. Voluntary redundancy further reduced the number of staff who could deliver the chaotic multi-tiered “blended learning” approach that was not only massively unpopular with students but resulted in dangerous workloads for staff. This was in the wake of a fire and rehire threat to all 8000 staff members which was “quietly dropped with no apology or explanation” (UCU branch email) after the campus trade unions mobilised resistance.
While staff members fought for their jobs, Koen Lamberts toured the media last July and promised students a normal campus experience at Sheffield. This resulted in a higher student intake in 2020 than before the pandemic. To manage that success, the UEB authorised a decrease in social-distance space in seminar rooms; a decision that was only reversed when the campus unions passed a vote of no-confidence in the UEB before the winter-term 2020/21 started. The SU launched a campaign for “the forgotten students of 2020” who were lured onto campus with false promises and without reduction in fees and over 100 first year students have gone into rent strike at the beginning of this year in protest.
Similarly, Gill Valentine’s slamming of students is not an isolated incident of poor communication skills of the UEB, to put it mildly. Vice-Chancellor Koen Lamberts has already been criticised for his silence and disengagement with staff members, and the worsening of industrial relations in the unresolved pay dispute of 2020, which went viral as #SilenceoftheLamberts. At the same time there were reports of political threats against the Student Union to drop their support for the strike or face cuts, which included intimidating behaviour by a senior management member.
Kick capitalism out of education
What these scandals highlight is the need for a genuine transformation of how universities are run. This must be seen in the context of the pandemic and the ongoing cuts in the Arts and Humanities, as well as in the culture, health, care, and public sectors.
On a national level the UCU has had a mandate to continue the fight against casualisation, pay erosion, gender and race pay gaps, dangerous workloads, and pension cuts for over a year now. This mandate was renewed at the last UCU Congress in June. However, thus far little mobilisation has happened and the slogans that have been issued, are yet to fill members with confidence. The rallying calls against marketisation of education need to find much stronger words than increased public funding and “build back better”. The reality is that moral pleas for better investment will go unanswered and it is too easy for the university management to play “divide and rule”.
What is needed is a radical programme directed at the transformation of the education sector. The slogan should be for the complete transformation of universities with democratic councils of students and workers, in control of all aspects of the university business, full insight into the university’s finances and accountable to society.
In the immediate, we join the students and staff fighting back and draw the line in the sand:
No confidence in the UEB!
For a democratically run university!
For the socialist transformation of society!
Petition: Save Sheffield Archaeology
Solidarity Rally 9th July 11am, stream over Facebook: It’s our
Elena Simon UCU (personal capacity)