Protevi on Philosophy at Middlesex University

by Harry on May 18, 2010

Frequent CT commenter John Protevi has an excellent piece about the proposed closure of the the Philosophy Department at Middlesex University at IHE and the THES. For those who don’t know, the University administrators are proposing to close the Department despite the fact that it is the highest ranked department in the University according the RAE, and seems to be heavily in the black. Of course, that it is in the black turns out not necessarily to work in its favour: apparently, due to a quirk in the RAE system, the university will continue to receive its RAE money from Philosophy for the next 6 years even if it closes the department. Protevi explains:

Philosophy at Middlesex received the highest rating of any programme in the university in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, a periodic exercise conducted by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which determines disbursement of government funds for research. Middlesex Philosophy had 65 per cent of its research activity rated “world-leading” or “internationally renowned”. This put Middlesex philosophy 13th of 41 programmes in the UK, at the top of all the other ex-polytechnics or “post-1992 universities”, and ahead of established heavyweights such as Sussex, Warwick, York, Durham, and Glasgow. To cut such a programme, while bragging on its website about its commitment to research excellence – that was just too much administrative hypocrisy for even many hardened American academics to bear.

When word got out that at Middlesex from 2008 to 2009 academic staff has fallen from 748 to 733, while administration has risen from 888 to 890; that the number of senior staff with total compensation above £100,000 increased from 7 to 13; and that total compensation for the VC increased from £223,000 to £246,000 – all these facts rang an all-too-familiar note with American academics as well. And it certainly didn’t help the administration’s image when people learned that consultant fees increased from £2,321,000 to £3,122,000 in that time period. (Details on these figures may be found here, in the university’s financial statement.)

Another outrage was learning that philosophy produced a yearly revenue of some £173,260 for the university from its excellent results in the 2008 RAE. Incredibly, the university will continue to receive that sum yearly until the research excellence framework, to be held in 2014 or perhaps even 2016, even if it has closed the philosophy programme! This was an all too blatant case of ripping off the labour of the philosophers. Then it came out that the “subject group” composed of philosophy (six faculty members) and religious studies (one member) contributed 53 per cent of its revenue to central administration in 2009-10 and was projected to contribute 59 per cent in 2010-11. The central administration requires 55 per cent, so it is willing to cut its most highly rated research programme for a temporary 2 percentage point shortfall. Veterans of penny-pinching, short-sighted, and arbitrary administrations winced with sympathetic familiarity at this sort of “reasoning”.

I’m not closely involved (to put it mildly) in UK higher education. But I have a number of friends in the system, some of whom are administrators. Universities in the UK are very highly dependent on a single funder (the government) and are therefore much more vulnerable to changes in government policy than universities in the US (where I am) are; it also seems to me that there is not much of a culture of having a clear sense of a mission of public service beyond responding to government whim, and this means that many high level administrators lack the inhibition from doing stupid things in the short term that such a sense of mission imposes on some good US administrators. (Two of my favourite books about American higher ed — Mission and Money: Understanding the University and Remaking the American University: Market-Smart and Mission-Centered — are all about how administrators can interact with the market in a way that serves their mission, rather than allowing the market to overwhelm their mission — I’m very curious how much sense these books would make to UK administrators).

In the comments to the THES page you’ll see at least one person hoping David Willetts can be persuaded to come to the rescue. Much more likely, in my opinion, that he’ll make universities less dependent on government funding (if he can convince his new orange friends to let him). This would probably help lots of Philosophy departments, but its not clear to me that the Humanities as a whole would gain in the long run.



tomslee 05.18.10 at 6:08 pm

I am also not involved with UK higher education, but Nina Power has been posting frequently from close range on this issue at


Moby Hick 05.18.10 at 6:28 pm

They should have a van that drives around Middlesex and checks if people are thinking philosophically. Anybody who is thinking in such a manner, but isn’t enrolled in the department, could be fined.


Jakobin 05.18.10 at 6:29 pm

For more information about the closure and ways you can help reverse this senseless decision please visit


Ina Blom 05.18.10 at 6:52 pm

Making European universities less dependent on government funding will most likely lead to a rapid crisis for the humanities and also for huge parts of the social sciences. The trick is to make governments realize how the short-term economic perspectives that underlie the mechanisms leading up to cuts of this kind (the division of students into “funding categories”) may have unexpected long-term effects on the overall nature of learning, research and the capacity for invention.


The Constructivist 05.18.10 at 7:45 pm

Harry, you should check out Christopher Newfield’s Unmaking the Public University (and his group blog remaking the university) and Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works (and the blog of the same name) for critiques of the market-smart/mission-centered paradigm. I wouldn’t be so confident that public universities in the U.S. are at all insulated from the logic Protevi critiques.


Harry 05.18.10 at 9:03 pm

I didn’t mean to suggest they were all, or even mostly, insulated, just that they have a couple of features that insulate them a bit more than many UK universities. The mission-centered/market smart paradigm doesn’t suggest that either — in fact a central point of the Zemsky et. al. book is precisely that universities frequently allow the market to dominate them, and do so even when they have the ability to resist. More on that soon.


Harry 05.18.10 at 9:04 pm

Oh, and thanks so much for the links.


The Constructivist 05.19.10 at 1:02 pm

You’re welcome. I’ve been blogging on related issues the last few months, and put some helpful links to key posts in this one on Middlesex.


Bill Wringe 05.20.10 at 9:59 am

apparently, due to a quirk in the RAE system, the university will continue to receive its RAE money from Philosophy for the next 6 years even if it closes the department.

Over in a discussion thread at Brian Leiter’s place, I suggested that if this decision went through (and obviously, I very much hope that efforts to save the department are succesful), then the AUT and BPA ought to campaign to have the REF money that philosophy has brought to Middlesex taken back and redistributed to other departments which continue to support philosophy.

Obviously this would be bad for Middlesex (and thus for its employees and students, who have, I’m sure had almost no input ito this decision). But as far as I can see, in recent years, the job security of many British academics has depended to a large extent on the supposition that universities would have no incentive to shut departments that competed succesfully for research funds in exercises like REF. If Middlesex get away with what they are doing that will no longer be true. So this is something which has ramifications beyond Middlesex and beyond philosophy.

Obviously, one might feel that this is all very much moot if the funding model for Britsh universities is about to change massively. (And the recent good news from KCL about the cuts that were proposed there makes me wonder whether they’ve heard something) But I’d be surprised if the REF, or something similar, were to go away in the near future.

(Disclaimer – for reasons that have nothing to do with this issue I normally post here under a pseudonym. I felt it would be disingenuous to refer to myself in the 3rd person when referring to the Leiter thread. I hope the moderators won’t regard this one-off posting under my real name as sock-puppetry. If they do, I’d rather they simply modded out the comment than either banning or outing me.)


John Protevi 05.21.10 at 5:37 pm

MDX admins have suspended Professors Osborne and Hallward in direct attack on academic freedom. Statement from Save Middlesex Philosophy campaign:

Open Letter here:

21 May 2010

Board of Governors
Middlesex University inLondon
The Burroughs
London NW4 4BT

Dear Members of the Board:

The suspension of Professors Osborne and Hallward is shameful! How could you allow the university administration under your supervision to behave this way?

Academic freedom will be defended. This is a gross miscalculation on the part of an out-of-control, panicking, administration. The previous international condemnation of your school will only increase.

Your administrators are at risk of permanently besmirching the reputation of your university. Do you really think that any self-respecting academic in any field with have anything to do with a university utilizing such thuggish tactics? An organized boycott is a real possibility at this point. Do you really want to go down that road?

You must rein in these administrators before they do permanent damage to your school.

John Protevi
Professor, Department of French Studies
Louisiana State University
Baton Rouge LA 70803 USA


engels 05.24.10 at 1:57 pm

Protevi’s piece is very good and shows what is possible when lecturers and students stand together to fight fees, cuts and corporatisation. (I’m not so sure about this post or the one above it. I wonder if ‘mak[ing] universities less dependent on government funding’ qualifies as Unspeak?)

UCU warned that inequality of access to higher education is already threatening the country’s success. Research shows that just 13% of fifteen year olds in receipt of free school meals go to university compared to the average of 33%. Educational under-achievement is estimated to cost £18bn a year according to the Princes Trust.

UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: ‘Raising tuition fees would be the most regressive piece of education policy since the second world war and put university out of reach for the majority. We desperately need to move away from the idea that the current review of student funding is merely a question of how much student fees go up by.

‘It is time for business rather than students and their families to make a fair contribution. Our proposals to increase corporation tax to fund our universities would still leave it at a lower rate than when the Conservative Party was last in power.’

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