Bernardine Evaristo was among big name writers who signed to open letter to Goldsmiths. Photograph: Jack Dredd/Rex
Thousands of academics from across the UK and abroad have signed an open letter calling on Goldsmiths, University of London, to “halt the decimation” of its English and History departments, after the university became the latest institution to announce job cuts in the humanities.
Goldsmiths has announced 52 compulsory redundancies to tackle “significant financial challenges”, targeting English and History as well as administrative staff. The letter, which currently has more than 2,600 signatures, warns that academics with “deeply rooted” expertise in Black and Queer History and Black literature are among those under threat of redundancy. It accuses university managers of running higher education like “fast fashion” and showing “utter disregard for the integrity of the education they want to sell”.
The letter says: “Presumably their posts will be filled by cheaper, precarious staff, or staff with different expertise asked to take on their redundant colleagues’ work. But a discipline is nothing without expertise; a degree is not a brand.”
The dispute is stoking an already tumultuous start to the academic year on British campuses. With the government trying to push through its bill on free speech in higher education, addressing a “crisis” many academics say doesn’t exist, Sussex University was engulfed in a fraught debate about whether it was right not to sack a professor for her views on gender identification.
Meanwhile, on Monday, the University and College Union balloted members across the country on possible strike action over pensions, pay, “untenable workloads” and casualised contracts.
Earlier this month, colleges at Cambridge University were accused of using overworked and underpaid “gig economy” workers to uphold their famous one-to-one tuition system.
UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “The university workforce is at breaking point. Pay has been cut by 17%, a typical member’s pension has been slashed by £240,000, and left-right-and-centre staff are being exploited by casualised contracts, which remain the dirty secret of our sector.”
The union has warned universities that if staff vote for strikes, they will be likely to happen before Christmas. This would mean fresh disruption for students, many of whom are aggrieved about spending months studying in their bedrooms during the pandemic, despite paying fees of £9,250 a year.
Academics are furious that experts in Black history and literature at Goldsmiths are coming under threat during Black history month and so soon after the Black Lives Matter protests. Priyamvada Gopal, professor of post-colonial studies at Cambridge University, said: “The young people of this country have made clear that they want the appalling gaps in the teaching of Black history, literature and culture addressed both in school and at university. These cuts, presided over by a government that has it in for the humanities, are a betrayal of these young people.”
Experts say Goldsmiths has a strong pedigree in English, even sponsoring its own £10,000 literature prize for a “mould-breaking” novel. Big-name writers have signed the protest letter, including Bernardine Evaristo, author of the Booker prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other, Professor Carol Ann Duffy, the former poet laureate, and the poet Michael Rosen.
Rosen tweeted this week: “Cancel culture? One place I can see a lot of culture being cancelled is Goldsmiths.”
He told the Observer: “Goldsmiths has mismanaged its finances, got itself into debt and brought the bankers in. The bankers are demanding cuts in staff. This means that bankers [They] are making educational decisions. It has changed the whole purpose and intention of what a university is and what it’s for.”
While applications for subjects such as computer science and maths have been booming, applications to study English have slumped, putting the subject in jeopardy at many institutions. By the January application deadline this year, 7,045 18-year-olds in the UK had applied to study English at university, a fall of more than a third from 10,740 in 2012, according to data from the admissions service Ucas. Experts say this is because far fewer students are now studying English at A-level.
Staff at Cumbria University were told in May that it would no longer take the students who applied to start an English degree this September, due to low numbers. Academics at Leicester University went on strike in June over redundancy plans in English.
Emma Griffin, president of the Royal Historical Society and professor of modern British history at the University of East Anglia, said the situation in the humanities was “only getting worse” and further cuts in history were “looking inevitable”.
She said when the government removed the cap on student numbers, many prestigious universities expanded their history numbers very rapidly, because the subject is relatively cheap to teach. “As these big departments hoover up ever more students, there are obviously much fewer to go around for everyone else, hence the problems at places like Goldsmiths.”
A spokesperson for Goldsmiths said: “The overall picture remains that Goldsmiths must deal with significant financial challenges including an underlying deficit, over £10m of additional costs and lost income due to Covid-19, government cuts that will see the college lose over £2m in funding every year, and a decline in the overall number of students studying some subjects.”
He added: “We are building a recovery plan to respond to these challenges and will continue to take every step possible, including reducing capital costs and selling buildings which are not major teaching spaces, to reduce expenditure with redundancies always our last resort.”
He said the university remained committed to teaching the humanities, including history, English and creative writing.