In my role as Professor of Archaeology at the University of Chester I’ve been striving alongside colleagues for 50 days against proposed redundancies in the subject areas of Archaeology, Heritage and History. We’ve learned that the senior management have identified their aspiration to sack 2 academic staff from a pool of 7 individuals who work in the Department of History and Archaeology at the University of Chester, based either at the main Parkgate Road (Exton Park) campus or at University Centre Shrewsbury.
Why? We haven’t been allowed to see the proposals, but the plans seem to have been devised based on a very short-term view of a dip in student recruitment and a dogged determination not to anticipate any potential upswing in student recruitment in coming years or pursue alternative strategies for marketing, recruitment, delivery of programmes or income streams. These determinations thus lack clarity, transparency, detail and come without consultation with us as experts in our field. Rather than work with us to identify proposals and alternatives, and despite clear evidence of the need for skilled heritage and archaeology practitioners in the future, there has been no review of our work. Instead, there has simply been a redundancy process in March/April which is now set to run until at least July. This is short-sighted and wrong.
The narratives percolating out in response to our objections have made the situation more shocking not less. Senior management have claimed this will have little impact on our scholarship and research, our students and programmes. This is false: it will undermine years of hard work in building our excellent reputation and delivery of quality teaching and research.
What was also chilling was an explicit claim by senior management that they regarded archaeology and heritage as oppositional to future-looking universities. This is truly shockingly ignorant and displays a fundamental lack of understanding of our academic disciplines.
The timing is also an insult: after we have just delivered our REF2021 submission, and after a year of exceptional circumstances caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite being exhausted and demoralised having delivered innovative teaching and research, mainly from home and during an exceptional global pandemic lockdown, we have attempted to muster a response. To date, our key activities have been to positively and constructively lobby and promote our work in the hope that someone might want to listen and support us:
- requesting support from external experts and organisations resulting in over 22 letters of support sent to our VC and other members of the University of Chester’s senior management, including an open letter from the Council for British Archaeology.
- setting up and developing social media accounts to promote our excellent teaching and research, with Facebook and Twitter accounts now widely followed;
- setting up this WordPress site to publish about our projects and innovative teaching and research, including our postgraduate researchers (and here and here);
- promoting a petition to save our staff which has now attracted over 5,500 signatures and 1,200 comments;
- writing an open letter to senior management setting out our concerns and objections.
- working with the UCU and other affected academics to campaign and protest #noredundancieschester against compulsory redundancies and stark management issues with the university over recent years: @NoRedundancies
Please check out my earlier statement about our situation here.
In taking this action, we are campaigning alongside other subject areas at the University of Chester facing redundancies. We are also aware that this coincides with a host of cuts at other UK HEIs, including Aston, London South Bank, Leicester and now most shocking for us at Chester, the world-renowned Department of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield.
National economic circumstances, political machinations and the COVID pandemic have clearly combined to create this enthusiasm among select senior managements of UK HEIs to slash quality teaching and research into the human past and its significances and values in today’s world. Let’s be clear: it’s a ‘hostile environment’ towards the critical investigation of the human past.
But equally, specific localised failings of communication and consultation are driving this process, and there are evidently a host of management issues and financial investments taken by senior management that UCU have questioned.
It is difficult to work out whether we can make a difference through our campaigning. Still, we must try!
For context, many of us have been aware measures such as this were on the horizon. There is no easy solution and with so much else going on in the world it is difficult for people to take notice. Each institution and each dept has different circumstances, and it is important we do not reduce this situation to a single economic, political, cultural or health-crisis cause. Yet there are commonalities and pernicious rhetoric afoot to destabilise the UK’s highly rated archaeology and heritage academic programmes. So, staff, students, the commercial sector, societies and local communities and anyone who is passionate about the human past, our current environment and human societies, and our shared futures, must try to work in solidarity to oppose these pressures to divide and undermine our academic disciplines of Archaeology and Heritage. To do this, we must support each other to protest and promote our staff, students and programmes.
What can be done? (1) Ethical principles of academic life. To my mind, the 7 principles of public life are not fully or adequately adhered to in academia. Academics themselves need to fully adhere to them and we must demand the same of from line managers and senior managers who seem to be struggling with each and every one of them. My recent experiences with this redundancy process are merely the latest example of many failings across institutions in these regards.
(2) Celebrate our strengths and successes alongside robust critiques of our ideas and practices. Imposter syndrome is rife, and I suffer too. But we have achieved so much together and we have much more to give! So we must challenge the constant erosion of our academic work by those who are gleeful to regard us as perpetually failing at every turn, as individuals and as disciplines. There are serious and candid issues to be raised and addressed in our discipline at every level from structural racism to bullying and harassment in the workplace, but these shouldn’t be used to dismantle our achievements and ongoing endeavours within the discipline, particularly by those who have nothing constructive to augment or replace it with. Transformation, not destruction, is the way we build on the best of what we have done. We cannot claim to have ethical principles whilst undermining the work of others and denigrating our own past and current endeavours. At the end of the day, outside our niche areas, this will only be seen as justification we don’t deserve to exist.
(3) Challenge the ignorance and the callousness of today’s academic hierarchies and processes. From REF to TEF to programme reviews and redundancy processes, it is quite clear that so few of those making the decisions have taken time to find out even the basics of what our disciplines are and what we aspire to do. Moreover, and as a result of this, nor do they care about the very staff and students and their futures as they so frequently claim a duty of care over. This is not our failing, not a weakness of our teaching and scholarship, our research and public engagement. Indeed, university structures aren’t simply ignorant of our work. Indeed, like pseudoarchaeology fanatics who simply want to believe in the mystery of ignorance and concoct false narratives unhinged from evidence, they actively choose to be ignorant of academic work and our students teaching and learning! How we challenge this is through our work itself, but also ensuring it cannot be ignored, making clear how and where it has made a difference. A digital footprint is key here, but so is collaborative support for each other to amplify our achievements within and beyond the academy.
Yet all this might be simply rearranging deckchairs, I appreciate that. The grander economic, political, ideological and pandemical issues might be outside our abilities to combat. Maybe it is all pointless to try and combat these processes and their root causes. But I do believe we can do so much to ameliorate against their worst effects if we work together in solidarity and seek to avoid ghastly own goals.
Hence, I firmly believe there is a future in the past, if for no other reason than the very forces aligned against us are creating a new climate of determination for archaeologists and heritage practitioners as well as our links with cognate disciplines. This situation has been decades in the creation and there are no quick fixes. Yet, now is the time to work together ethically, in confidence, and with clarity and integrity, to push back against the lazy, short-sighted and flawed plans we are being gaslight and bullied into accepting as inevitable.