On the Business Case for the Closure of UWE Philosophy

The University of the West of England has announced a plan to close its BA Philosophy programme, halting student recruitment for the 2020/21 academic year.

As far as I can tell, there isn’t any stated financial reason for closing the programme, and the strategic reasons for it are very much down to interpretation. I think this is encouraging for those who want to save the programme, since it suggests that the decision can be swayed by a demonstration of popular support.

James Ladyman has written an open letter in defence of preserving this programme, while a student-led petition to save it is heading towards its target of 10,000 signatures.

It would be harder to push back against the idea of closing the programme if it were financially unsustainable, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I can’t say for sure, since university financial statements aren’t broken down by department. But looking at the annual report, UWE’s financial position in general seems to be pretty good, ending the 2018/9 academic year with an operating surplus of £3.2m.

While all UK universities will take losses due to Covid-19, if you look at the list in this article you’ll see that UWE isn’t towards the top with the institutions likely to take the biggest losses.

Moreover, in AY2018/19 UWE had an income of £206.2m from tuition fees, with staff costs totalling £171.8m. Since humanities subjects like philosophy have most of their costs in staff, it seems likely that the philosophy department is revenue-positive for the university.

The business case for closing the programme doesn’t seem to be financial. It seems to be based on the fact that undergraduate philosophy enrolments are down throughout the UK, and the number of applications to UWE’s Philosophy BA are down by more than the national average. This is part of an (partly state-engineered) shift towards STEM subjects.

In one way this counts against the case for closing the programme. If such a move were necessary then the majority of philosophy departments in the UK would be considering shutting down their undergraduate programmes (only a few exceptions such as Birmingham and Exeter are growing in undergraduate student enrolments).

The plan to close the BA Philosophy has been developed in the context of the university’s overall strategy of simplifying its portfolio. Because the university is committed to closing some programmes, to make its offering more streamlined and simple, BA Philosophy looks like a good candidate, since enrolments are down.

But there are many factors that have to be weighed up in deciding to close a programme for this strategic reason (as opposed to a financially-based one). I’m told that the Philosophy faculty are currently arguing that keeping the programme is in fact in line with UWE’s overall strategy.

Speaking for myself, some points worth noting are that:

Studying in a close-knit group of students and lecturers, you’ll engage with the history of philosophy, from its beginnings in ancient Greece to the great minds of 19th, 20th and 21st century European philosophers.

Very few departments in the UK have the expertise to properly introduce undergraduate students to ‘the great minds of 19th, 20th and 21st century European philosophers’. Most have a strong focus on (mostly British and American) ‘Analytic’ philosophy, alongside Ancient, Early Modern, and sometimes Medieval philosophy. Students who would like to study philosophy outside the Analytic tradition in the UK are quite limited in their options, though many appear interested — at St Andrews, for instance, our one module on Continental Philosophy is very popular.

Thus, against falling enrolments, which is in any case part of a national (perhaps global) trend, there is the fact that the UWE philosophy programme is popular and unique in the UK and makes the university stand out. A demonstration of widespread popular support for the programme could lead the decision-makers to consider these and other factors. Since decisions on how best to simplify the university’s portfolio are highly subjective and qualitative, this could make a real difference.

If you believe in preserving the programme, showing support can make a real difference. Contact the Pro Vice Chancellor, post on social media, and sign the petition:

https://www.change.org/p/marc-griffiths-uwe-pro-vice-chancellor-and-executive-dean-of-health-and-applied-sciences-save-uwe-s-philosophy-programme?use_react=false

Lecturer in Philosophy, University of St. Andrews — personal website: https://axdouglas.com/

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