The Neo-Liberal Axe Falls Heavy at QUB

As the frenzied coverage of elections continues, we can reveal a snapshot of the brutal cutbacks that are planned to go ahead at Queen’s University, here Sam Price gives a run down of what is going ahead, and asks you to support the opposition to these plans.

Senior management at Queen’s University Belfast have taken the unprecedented decision to close their BA Sociology, and BA Anthropology degree pathways. The final intake of students will arrive in September 2017, and remaining registered students will be ‘taught out’ by the current group of staff. Although the subjects will have some residual presence in the restructured university, they will be available only as options on other degree paths. At Senate on April 12th, Queen’s management signed off on an agreement which provides for the closure of both degree options, and the teaching out of current students. Staff are not convinced of the security of the subject, with many seeing this as the first step to ultimate elimination. Clarity has not been offered on the future of jobs within the schools, and staff in sociology were informed at a special meeting in March that there were to be three job losses amongst the ten remaining sociologists. This follows a round of job cuts last year, which saw over 200 staff leave the university through redundancy deals. Sociology is now to be merged with the School of Education, and although the final title of the new school is not decided, it looks set not to include ‘Sociology’ (current favourites are the School of Education and Social Science, or School of Professional Practice).

 This latest move is part of a barrage of punitive measures aimed at staff in the social sciences and beyond. Last year, Queen’s HR issued all probationary staff with new terms of employment, and new criteria for confirmation in post. New staff hired at Queen’s are not automatically permanent, they must be confirmed in post after a period of probation, which can last up to five years. To gain tenure, staff must now – under new conditions grossly out of line with other universities – secure yearly minimum amounts of grant income (from approved sources), and achieve minimum scores of ‘4 out of 5’ on their teaching evaluations. International evidence consistently shows up these evaluation methods as sexist, racist, and highly subject-dependent. Furthermore, the success rates of some ‘prestige’ funding streams (for example the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme), is below 5%. With shrinking pools of grant money available to social scientists across the UK, the outlook is indeed bleak.

 More is coming. The university plans to implement controversial minimum grade requirements of ABB for all new entrants. It has identified the impact of these minimum entry tariffs on student intake in subjects such as Irish (42% cut), and Philosophy (51% cut). Sociology has a long tradition of facilitating access from ‘non-traditional’ entrants, and has the highest representation in the University of Students from these backgrounds. It has achieved this through its close links with schools, and the appeal of its links with state departments, NGOs, and employers. Across the university, 40% of degree options currently require less than ABB to secure a place. Equality of access for students from less affluent backgrounds will fall as a result.

The most worrying prospect for the future, is the kind of education today’s administrators are choosing to value. Despite the clear, and vital importance of science and technology, there is also a crucial role for social science to play. It is the subject which provides the tools to generate the evidence that informs our social policies. It promotes independent and critical thought, and teaches students to question and scrutinise public institutions. Social scientists at Queen’s are doing this right now, through their work on issues such as the judicial and prison system, the impact of welfare cuts, future prospects of the peace process, substance abuse, child poverty, mental health, ageing, and migration. With similar measures underway at the University of Ulster, reversing these cuts is crucial to the survival of the subject in Northern Ireland. Queen’s have internalised the rulebook of neo-liberal reform with their unprecedented assault on social science. In doing so, they buy into, and reinforce an ideology which values public institutions and the knowledge they produce, merely in terms of their ability to attract money – whether in the form of grants, or student fees. They must not succeed. Staff and students at Queen’s are now mounting a campaign against these measures, involving tech-ins, poster campaigns, and pickets. Your support, in any form, is now urgently needed. Please register your opposition to these cuts at the following link.