Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK government has shown a growing contempt towards the arts as restrictions and lockdowns have continued to put theatres, cinemas, museums, galleries, and gig venues under forced closure. This dismissal of the arts has been most infamously demonstrated in the government’s “Rethink. Reskill. Reboot.” campaign, or the better known “Fatima” advert, suggesting that young artists should ‘reskill’ and get into technical fields such as cybersecurity. Unfortunately, this lack of regard towards the arts has also revealed itself on a societal level. The pandemic has shown that a need for arts and culture has decreased in importance, as we are forced to shift our focus towards statistics, solutions, and policy. Therefore, universities feel they must adapt to this ever-changing view of higher education and the post-covid job market.
This view has been exemplified by an Executive decision to impose redundancies for staff at the University of Leicester this month. The University’s Vice-Chancellor Nishan Canagarajah and the Executive Board have taken the decision to make staff cuts as they admit a loss of funding. 145 members of staff are at imminent risk of redundancy — many of which belong to the School of Arts, as well as the Schools of Business, Informatics, Mathematics, Neuroscience, and Psychology. The University plans to: “re-focus and strengthen English by closing English Language … to cease teaching Medieval Literature and reduce the size of Early Modern Literature.”
The University, much like the government’s revisionist nature, ‘Re-think. Reskill. Reboot.’ campaign, use a ‘Shaping for Excellence’ slogan that affirms the necessity of these cuts, as they: “underpin our future strategy by focusing our efforts where we can demonstrate excellence.”
Moreover, the Vice-Chancellor admits in an email to students on 29th January that: “The changes we are proposing to make to medieval literature have been informed by a drop in demand from undergraduate and postgraduate students in recent years.”
Meanwhile, however, the University’s medical school takes pride in being the “first UK medical school to adopt a [free] one-iPad-per-student program at the undergraduate level.” As well as that, millions of pounds have and will be invested into new building projects. From this information, it is evident that the University cares more to assert itself as a shining example of pioneering scientific research.
Redundancies are also planned to go ahead for Liverpool, Leeds, Southampton Solent, Dundee, and Brighton as well — All of which are causing mass anxiety among staff who are preparing to lose their jobs during one of the most unpredictable times in history. Image and profit are starting to become overwhelming aspects of Higher Education, and it is worrying that the needs of existing students and staff are beginning to be forgotten.
As a final year English student at the University of Leicester, it is deeply disheartening that my University’s attitudes towards the arts is measured by its profitability. As somebody who has known the staff in Leicester’s School of Arts for 4 years now, I have always known how hard the staff work to express their passions and love for their profession. The job cuts for staff teaching medieval and modern literature continue a similar narrative that the government uses for the ‘Fatima’ campaign — the idea that people should ‘reskill’ and adapt to their changing environments.
Like Leicester, other universities may follow similar steps to cut corners and save money. Universities are, by definition, businesses — It has become more clear that the interest of profit lies in the heart of Leicester’s ‘Shaping for Excellence’ marketing, and shows a tragic reality that money and academic reputation comes before anything else.
This is simply unacceptable. In the heart of education, profit should never have to determine the value of learning, no matter if it is medieval literature or medicine.
Fortunately, however, the University and College Union (UCU) have mobilised strongly against redundancies being made to the aforementioned universities. The Leicester branch has voted unanimously to oppose all redundancies and to pass a motion of no confidence for the Executive Board. In addition, the Student Disinvestment Committee has introduced a motion of no confidence on behalf of all students.
It is promising to see that staff and students at universities refuse to accept this widening disparity in education. However, it is time that we all truly understand the value of the arts — education should always provide us with the variety of learning to best equip us for the future. Although the pandemic may prevent us from going to theatres or cinemas, we must not forget the hard-working people who had to learn to work for the things that we love. Therefore, we must protect the arts in higher education.
While the societal shift towards science, progression, and the future is wonderful, it has called attention to a discouraging neglect of the arts in the curriculum. Students and staff can help to seek justice against unfair department changes at their own universities by leading or supporting groups with their representatives at their student unions.
As a result, there can still be a cause for optimism as students and staff clearly continue the attitude that the preservation of the arts and the wellbeing of staff and students is paramount to quality learning.
Words by Brooke Cadwell