A chill wind coming

It’s hardly the most important world news. But the UK university cuts announced a couple of days ago will mean a pretty bleak time for universities. Sure, more money has gone into universities here in recent years, but then so have more students: so what is being talked about is a sharp squeeze on per capita expenditure, hence a yet further worsening of staff-student ratios, with all that entails. No doubt it will be a lot worse further down the pecking order: but I imagine a pretty chill wind will be blowing in Cambridge too. It will be a fight (at poor odds) to get my post filled when I have to leave at the end of next academic year. Cambridge hasn’t exactly an encouraging track record of supporting small humanities departments — despite the growth in student numbers we have no more established lecturing staff in philosophy than we had twenty years ago.

And I suspect that — given the government’s emphasis on business-useful skills etc. — it could be a particularly chill wind for many other philosophy departments too. Overall, philosophy departments have done rather spectacularly well over the last fifteen or more years, partly driven by a big increase in the numbers of students opting for the subject. But I’ve never heard that increase plausibly explained, nor heard any reason given why the numbers shouldn’t evaporate again as quickly (think sociology). After all, what students actually get in most philosophy courses, once they are enrolled a philosophy degree, is only tangentially related to what many of them think they have signed up for (in some cases, even those who have done some philosophy at school).

I get sent a publication called Discourse produced by the “Subject Centre for Philosophical and Religious Studies” [why that marriage?] of the “Higher Education Academy”. Issues of Discourse are indeed rather disheartening documents, as they seem to a significant extent about how to teach an approximation to philosophy to students who are neither particularly committed nor particularly bright. Are those students really going to stick around? OK, philosophy can tick that “transferrable skills in critical thinking” box. But we are hardly unique in that.

So I’m not optimistic. It would be ironic if — despite all our grumbling about  RAEs and QAAs and mounds of administrivia — the last decade  soon looks like something of a silver age for UK philosophy.

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