It is now clear that the University of Portsmouth is planning to reduce its English Literature department from 12 to five full-time staff – a massive 58% cut. The UoP English Literature team share the full facts of the situation.
Students have demonstrated against the move. World-famous author Neil Gaiman joined people from across the world to sign the students’ petition against the cuts. The English Literature team, in association with the University and College Union have produced a positive and realistic alternative vision for the subject. As S&C reported on 12 June, staff from across the School of Area Studies, History, Politics and Literature wrote an open letter to the Interim Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and the Faculty Business Manager to ask them to halt the redundancy consultation.
But the University has continued to claim that the English Literature degree is in decline and so these cuts are necessary. So the University’s story is that redundancies are the only way.
But the story isn’t true.
So let’s move away from stories and get into the hard facts. First of all, annual student recruitment for our BA in English Literature is up by 29% since 2015/16. If you saw a business with such an impressive record, you’d think it was a pretty safe bet, wouldn’t you?
Yet the University claims this very course is in decline. How can these two very different views of the business health of this degree exist, and which is right?
The key to understanding the difference lies in what figures are being drawn on and why. The University is basing its case on applications, which it reports are down 24% since 2015/16, whereas we have pointed out that first year student numbers are up by 29% since the same point.
A person can select up to five courses when applying through UCAS: this makes up the pool of applicants who visit open days, contact University staff, and go online to find out more. The University is focusing on the numbers for this pool of applicants. It is true that the pool numbers have dropped by 24%.
That makes it all the more remarkable that the numbers actually registering for the BA English Literature have gone up by 29%. That means that, in a more competitive market, the degree has been outperforming competitors. Of all the students who might take up an offer to study English here, an increasing number have chosen to actually do so.
With that in mind, spare a thought for we the English Literature staff targeted by the University’s proposed cuts. We have produced a popular, high-quality degree that students want to undertake.
We have also been working to 94% of the University’s own workload norms. The case for redundancy levels of 58% implies that the University expects the staff who are left after the cuts to work at well over 200%. Even if that were possible, it doesn’t make good business sense – and certainly doesn’t suggest that the University takes very seriously its commitment to staff wellbeing.
Then consider COVID-19. The lockdown involved moving a lot of our teaching and assessment online very quickly. Ongoing restrictions on large group gatherings directly affect university provision and is involving a huge amount of extra preparation for the next academic year. Even under current staffing levels, lecturers across universities will be under extreme pressure to meet the increased workload that has resulted. Remember, working at 94% capacity means having only 6% left for contingencies. Pursuing a 58% cut to staffing in that context begins to look like a serious failure in the University’s duty of care.
If your business was increasingly successful in the context of a potentially shrinking and more competitive market, you wouldn’t cut the quality of the successful product, would you?
But let’s return to that pool of students. What if the University is right and the number of potential students wanting to take an English Literature degree is in serious and sustained decline? That would make the future of the subject shaky at least, right?
Well, firstly, the University’s claims that the pool is in decline is based on the figures for ‘English Studies’, which is not the same thing as ‘English Literature’. That might seem like a slight distinction, but it’s not: it’s fundamental, and using the figures for one to support a case for redundancy in the other is a clear sign that something is very wrong with the University’s case for redundancies.
English Studies contains not one, but TWO core subjects that are distinct and separate: English Literature and English Language. There has been a substantial decline in the numbers of students studying English Language A-Level, but that is of no relevance today, as we’re talking about students on English Literature degrees.
What the University of Portsmouth is doing, then, is akin to using a fall in A-Level recruitment in Chemistry to justify cutting staff in Biology because both count as ‘Science’.
Secondly, while the University has driven on in spite of this key confusion, its case was out-of-date —‘redundant’, let’s say — almost as soon as it was made. The Government’s Official Statistics for provisional Entries for GCSE, AS and A level (published on 11 June) show that, in reality, A Level entries for English Literature have actually gone up by 2% and that the English Literature market share has consequently increased by 3.9%. (Numbers taking English Language have gone up by 7%, so the recent decline in that area also seems to be reversing.)
Let’s give the University the benefit of the doubt for a moment, though. Say those who put together the case for redundancies were confused and really believed that the drop in A-Level uptake and applicants equated to a drop in the numbers actually undertaking the English Literature degree. The truth is that the number of students taking A-Levels in different subjects always varies, and therefore so does the number of applications to those subjects at degree level. And they often vary for reasons that can’t be predicted.
Some of you will remember the old BT advert in which the character of Beattie (played by Maureen Lipman) calls her grandson about his exam results. Hearing that he has failed everything but Pottery and Sociology, she exclaims ‘You’ve got an ology! You get an ology, you’re a scientist!’ The effect of that parody of Sociology degrees (previously recruiting very well), was, for a few years, catastrophic. Sociology departments across the UK had to be propped up by recruitment elsewhere. Was that foolish? No, because Sociology recovered and recruitment is now extremely good again.
These fluctuations are part of the ongoing picture of recruitment in higher education: trends come and go; situations change and change again.
If you react to every short-term drop in A-Level uptake, you just end up making staff redundant in subject after subject, and then have to hire new staff at short notice in those very subject areas when things improve again. That sort of shambolic short-termism is not the way to ensure a smoothly functioning business, or provide well for students paying fees. This is why most university Vice-Chancellors – most business owners generally – would be appalled at the idea of basing staff cuts on Mystic Meg-style predictions.
However, none of those details should matter anyway because, as we have shown, the number of students on the BA English Literature at Portsmouth has not dropped.
So, why is the University of Portsmouth proceeding with its negative business case against English Literature? Why is it sending out spokesmen to tell us that applications for English Literature are down when we know that student numbers for English Literature are up? Why is the University conflating English Literature and English Language under the heading ‘English Studies’ in a way that suggests a significant drop in A-level registrations that doesn’t actually apply to English Literature? Why is it ignoring the pick-up in A-Level registration for both English Literature and English Language? And why is the University of Portsmouth proceeding with this now, when the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a significant rise in workload from a position where staff were already working to the upper limits of capacity? Why would a 24% decrease in applications even make the case for a 58% reduction in staff in the first place?
We would be very interested to know.
Featured image, ‘University Of Portsmouth, Park Building And Attached Railings And Balustrade’ by MassimilianoFinzi is reproduced here under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.