Last month, along with 225 of my colleagues, and after eighteen years of dedicated work at the University of Roehampton, I was told that I face the sack.
Despite marketing itself as the ‘best modern university in the country for research, and the highest-ranked modern university in London‘, Roehampton recently announced a plan to cut the number of courses on offer and sack 226 academics, around half of the current academic workforce. Staff will be forced to compete for fewer new jobs, some on short-term contracts teaching out the courses being cancelled.
In my years at Roehampton, I have proudly taught hundreds of fantastic students. I have embraced working here, and have been able to work with super colleagues from the early days of the university’s classical programme. Like other staff in our sector, I have gone above and beyond for the university because of my passion for higher education, classics, the humanities, arts, and the wider benefits of education for society in general and in particular for those groups that are often less represented in my field.
My job is going as Roehampton’s Classics department is one that is due to close. Quite apart from the impact on myself, this is particularly sad as we are one of the few Classics departments in a post-92 university. We have stellar ratings from students, colleagues, and from research evaluations; we are comparable to top Russell Group universities in everything except the kind of students we take.
The university is justifying these cuts with claims that it wants to push students towards ‘graduate-level’ jobs and focus more on ‘skills-led’ learning with ‘greater levels of engagement with employers’. Yet my colleagues and I have led the way in embedding employability into our curriculum, for which we were made Roehampton Teaching Fellows by the university.
The Schools of Arts, Education, Humanities and Social Sciences, Life and Health Sciences, and Psychology are all being targeted. Many subjects will no longer be taught at all; others will have severely depleted staff numbers, which will further increase the workloads of those staff lucky enough to keep their jobs.
This is all part of this government’s wider agenda, which says universities should focus on preparing students for the job market and move away from what it describes as ‘low value’ courses. Given that the Prime Minister himself studied Classics at university, the depressing irony of cutting off this route through education for future generations less well-off than him is not lost on me.
Importantly, working-class and ethnic-minority students from our local area, who constitute the majority of Roehampton students, are being deprived of the opportunity to study subjects that will become more and more a privilege of the elites: subjects that encourage critical thinking and a question of the status quo. If the government and compliant universities have their way, the courses that remain will be transformed mainly into skills-based, employer-led training.
This shift to teaching aimed more at ‘useful’ skills, and to vocational, technical qualifications will deprive young people of the same opportunities as their more well-off peers and could further shut down access to critical subjects to those from underrepresented groups.
I am proud of the work I have done at Roehampton. Right now I am on the cusp of reaching several milestones which will build on work for which I have an international reputation, such as editing a series of books on ancient gods and heroes, writing a book under contract with Oxford University Press, and finishing a book of lessons for autistic children. I am also organizing sessions for autistic children and others such as students in pupil referral units to heritage sites in London, having run one recently at Roehampton in our neoclassical temple at Mount Clare.
There is still so much to do, and so much work that will impact my local community, including with students of color and autistic students, in line with what I love about Roehampton: making a difference.
Roehampton’s brutal moves will harm not only staff like myself but also students and society at large. The university claims the changes ‘aim to support an excellent academic experience for all current and future students’. However, in September, students will come back to an unrecognizable university with many of their lecturers, supervisors, and academic guidance tutors gone, while new first-year students will join an institution very different from the one advertised to them.
Roehampton claims that it facilitates a ‘positive, self-critical organizational culture and a supportive environment’. Staff might say otherwise. Our local University and College Union branch conducted a survey of staff stress levels at Roehampton in March of this year, prior to the announcement of the restructure, and found that eighty-seven percent of respondents frequently felt overwhelmed, and more than seven in ten reported problems sleeping. Workload was repeatedly cited as causing high levels of stress.
My union has described these cuts as ‘nothing short of an assault on education’. I agree with this and feel that if anything, senior management at post-92 universities should be part of the fight against the government’s drive towards cutting off access to the arts and humanities and stifling opportunities for working-class students.
I have loved working at Roehampton and had planned to continue working there for the foreseeable future, but this decision may now be out of my hands. I hope that university management will see sense and reverse the decision to slash courses and staff. If they go ahead with these plans we will fight them alongside our students so that future generations have access to the same breadth of knowledge—whether they attend Eton or the local comp.