A campaign is under way to fight “devastating” job cuts at Birkbeck, University of London, which has been described as one of the most distinctive institutions of its kind and “a jewel in the crown” of British higher education.
On the eve of its 200th anniversary, staff have been warned of 140 job losses, reportedly to claw back funds to fill a £13m deficit. The University and College Union (UCU) said the cuts threatened to “trash” Birkbeck’s proud history and could jeopardise its contribution to social mobility and lifelong learning.
According to UCU, managers emailed staff confirming plans to cut 84 academic and 56 administrative jobs by July 2023, including up to 11 staff in the English, theatre and creative writing (ETC) department, 10 in geography, seven in politics, the same in film, media and cultural studies, six in philosophy, and a further six in language, cultures and applied linguistics.
The broadcaster Joan Bakewell who as Birkbeck’s president spent last week presiding over graduations, said: “I am personally most concerned to see the English department suffering so harshly. As a member of the British Academy I share their broader concerns that the humanities across the sector are under threat. I have made my views known to the vice-chancellor.
“It seems that the case for the humanities has to be made yet again. While the sciences and hi-tech subjects result in discoveries of immediate application to how we live, the humanities endorse the values that make life itself worth living.”
Since the news broke there has been an outpouring of dismay at the proposed cuts, as well as tributes to the distinctive role Birkbeck has played – and continues to play – in higher education, bringing together students from all over the world and all walks of life to study between 6pm and 9pm.
Birkbeck began life in 1823 as the London Mechanics’ Institute, with the stated aim of educating the working-classes, and has played a radical and pioneering role in reaching students who otherwise would not have gone to university, with its unique evening study model.
One former student recalled studying alongside a stripper from Soho’s Raymond Revue bar and a PR executive, while others have learned in the company of the artist Tracey Emin, adventurer Bear Grylls and actors Daisy Ridley and Simon Bird.
A petition against cuts to the English department alone has collected almost 8,000 signatures and a joint letter has been sent by the English Association, the Institute for English Studies and University English, expressing dismay at the proposed cuts, warning they will be “devastating” for the long-term reputation of the college.
Dr Masuda Qureshi, posting a picture of her graduation this week, tweeted: “A bitter-sweet moment as I graduated with a PhD from @BirkbeckUoL. The day was overshadowed by the imminent threat to my world-leading department @birkbeck ETC facing 50% staff redundancy. The department MADE me, a brown woman a Dr – cuts will jeopardise this for future gens.”
Marina Warner, a writer and professor of English and creative writing at Birkbeck, also tweeted: “We are defending ourselves and our students from the threats – no job cuts in English at Birkbeck, University of London! – Sign the Petition! https://chng.it/dS2j9sw4 via @UKChange” She had been planning to retire, but will now stay on in solidarity with her colleagues.
Describing the cuts as deplorable, she told the Guardian: “Birkbeck has a special place in people’s consciousness. They know that it’s done something rather remarkable for a long time, and that it’s still doing that. And it needs to be fostered and encouraged and invested in, not diminished.”
Other leading figures in arts and culture echoed Warner’s dismay at yet another assault on the arts, including the playwright James Graham, whose BBC TV drama Sherwood was a hit recently. “Job losses at Birkbeck & naturally it’s in English & theatre. Culture is a success story & it’s starting to fail,” he tweeted.
UCU members, who voted for a motion of no confidence in the senior leadership, blamed “mistakes by senior management”. Critics claim millions have been spent on new buildings, while planning for post-Brexit changes to enrolment has been poor.
The vice-chancellor, Prof David Latchman, is among the best-paid university leaders in the country with a salary of more than £385,000.
A Birkbeck spokesperson said: “It is untrue that 140 jobs ‘are to be cut’. Birkbeck is consulting on proposals and decisions have not been made about these yet.”
The spokesperson said the proposals were part of a wider strategy to respond to changes in demand for different courses, the ways in which students want to learn, and the value of the undergraduate tuition fee that has halved in real terms since 2012. “It would be wholly irresponsible and bad management if we were to ignore these changes and the environmental challenges.”
The former Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell, who did a master’s at Birkbeck and is an honorary fellow, has tabled an early day motion calling on the university management to rule out compulsory redundancies. “Birkbeck is a unique institution allowing access to higher education for people who often are not able to take time out from working.
“It has been a breeding ground for politicians, civil servants and significant contributors to fields of public service. It’s a place that over the years has changed people’s lives, opening up new vistas and opportunities. We can’t allow it to be decimated in this way.”
Another Birkbeck alumnus, the Lib Dem leader, Ed Davey, said: “Birkbeck is a jewel in the crown for top-quality higher education, especially for people in work seeking a change of direction. In my mid-20s I decided to do a master’s, giving up two nights a week to learn economics at Tottenham Court Road.
“So for people seeking high-quality part-time or night-time education I cannot recommend Birkbeck enough. I would urge Conservative ministers to engage urgently with Birkbeck or risk further undermining one of Britain’s leading institutions.”
McDonnell and Davey belong to a long and illustrious list of notable Birkbeckians which includes the social reformer Annie Besant (1847-1933), the political leader and advocate of pan-Africanism Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) and Britain’s first Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald (1866-1937).
Among those who have taught there are the poet, playwright and literary critic TS Eliot (1888-1965), the professor of aesthetics Roger Scruton (1944-2020) and the historian Eric Hobsbawm, who joined Birkbeck as a lecturer in 1947 and stayed until his death in 2012.