It was only a matter of time before the protests of 1968 were alluded to in the Nash Room at the ICA yesterday evening. After an academic year that has brought mounting opposition to cuts in higher education, an impassioned crowd of students and academics from across the country had convened at the arts centre for a debate — “Who’s afraid of philosophy?” — to discuss how to oppose department closures.
Since January, when £2.5bn worth of cuts was mooted, joint student-staff protests have been staged at the University of Sussex, at King’s College London and at the University of Westminster, all of whose humanities departments have borne the brunt of attempts at savings, with philosophy departments made to feel particularly vulnerable.
This month, plans to axe the highly regarded philosophy department at Middlesex — one of the most successful in the university — prompted a 12-day student occupation of the Trent Park campus. Among those expressing their support for the campaign were Alain Badiou, Judith Butler, Slavoj Žižek and Noam Chomsky.
Last night — five days after the students were evicted from the building following a high court injunction — Professor Alexander Garcia Düttmann of Goldsmiths, University of London, warned that the protests at Middlesex represented much wider discontent with a managerial culture that forces researchers to prove their worth in quantitative and economic terms.
“Many of us are fed up with the way in which philosophy, the humanities and higher education more generally is treated by university managers and administrators . . . Whatever [subject] cannot account for its measurable success and whatever does not bring in money has no longer a place in the university, we are told.
“[The idea] that every aspect of academic life, a life now determined by the imperative of getting external funding, can and should be assessed and monitored . . . is a fiction that leads to arbitrary measures, as can be gauged by the decision to close a centre for philosophy that was actually successful according to the adopted criteria,” Düttmann said.
In the view of Peter Osborne, senior lecturer in philosophy at Middlesex (who stands to lose his job), closures are being made at the behest of “new university managers and administrators [who] are the organic products of a new capitalist regime” in higher education. And philosophy, “functioning emblematically for the open-endedness of experimental research and unmeasurable quality of intellectual inquiry”, has become “the temporary resting place of a capitalistic dread”.
Professor Alex Callinicos of King’s College London praised the co-operation between academic staff and students in organising the protests. Nina Power of Roehampton University urged campaign organisers to probe funding bodies such as the HEFCE themselves.
“Academics live in daily morbid fear of not getting research grants and approval from these bodies,” she said. “We need to find out who makes up them, what they stand for, and why on earth they are unelected.”
Readers can follow the ongoing campaign to save the Middlesex philosophy department here.
UPDATE: Good news for academic staff at King’s College London, who, after staging a walkout this month, have been told there will no longer be compulsory redundancies in the School of Arts and Humanities.
In a document accessible via the university website, university administrators said: “At the end of the Consultation period, the School has identified the savings required by means other than compulsory redundancies; these include a range of voluntary severance packages, relocations, early retirements, non-replacement of retired staff, and the replacement of retiring staff with early-career academics.”