Birkbeck Graduate Students on Proposed Cuts

As noted last month, the Department of Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London and other units there are facing drastic cuts. The department’s graduate (post-graduate, or PGR) students have now written a letter to the administration objecting to the cuts.

Kristoffer Ahlstrom-Vij, chair of Philosophy at Birkbeck, explained the severity of the cuts:

The worst-case scenario savings targets that have been shared by senior management would involve a faculty reduction of up to 6 FTE in Philosophy. Since not all colleagues are at 1 FTE, this would likely involve a headcount reduction of greater than 6, and potentially 50% of the Department. We are currently working with senior management to, among other things, query the model used to arrive at this savings target, and to impress on them exactly how damaging such a reduction would be for the Department. Most importantly, it would seriously compromise our important and unique mission of providing philosophy education to a wide range of students, including through evening and part-time study, and a highly successful conversion program for students without a formal background in philosophy.

Here’s the text of the students’ letter:

Dear Professor Latchman, Professor Innes, Professor Swann, and Sir Andrew,

We are writing as members of the 2022/23 Philosophy MPhil/PhD cohort to express our concern and opposition to the proposed staff reductions. Our department has strong grant-winning performance, an excellent research output – the 2021 REF classed 70% of it as world leading or internationally excellent – and renowned members of staff.  If these proposals are realised, staff will be reduced by up to 50%, thus harming the department’s future.

We have been told that after the proposed reorganisation, we will be provided with the best possible experience as philosophy PGR students. However, we are deeply sceptical about such assurances, for the following reasons:

    • Supervision. Student/supervisor relationships are vital for successful PhDs, for not only are supervisors experts in our chosen fields, but also because we enter into a deep conversation with them over many years, and via this conversation they offer feedback and guidance. Following the proposals, many of us will have to change supervisors, and an important thread in our academic development will be severed.
    • Academic Environment. Fewer staff will result in a worse environment for remaining staff and students. The department offers a wide range of opportunities such as study days, workshops, seminars, reading groups, faculty Work-in-Progress meetings, and conferences. These events depend on the academics, not only for their time, but also for their world-wide relationships with the philosophy community. This commitment to a multifaceted community of interests cannot be maintained if the proposals go ahead.
    • PGR Teaching Opportunities. PGR students rely on teaching as part of their academic development. The proposals will reduce the number of modules offered, thus leading to fewer teaching opportunities.

Discontinuity in supervision, an impoverished academic environment, and reduced teaching opportunities, will all put us in a worse off position compared with other graduates when we finish, breaking a long story of success for Birkbeck philosophy post-doc placements. The offer made upon our enrolment – as recently as Summer 2022 for some – is in danger of not being upheld, and these problems will also make future students reluctant to enrol.

Birkbeck has been offering first-class education for 200 years. However, these proposals threaten to render the philosophy education offered second-class at best, by no fault of the remaining staff. We stand with the staff, and overall hold that these proposals are short-sighted with lasting consequences to the student body, laid off staff, remaining staff, and the College itself, especially in light of the fact that headwinds to student enrolment are likely to be temporary. We urge senior management and the governors to seriously rethink their proposals.

This letter will be circulated publicly. If you wish to discuss the above issues, please contact our representatives, Romanos Koutedakis at: [email protected], and Simon Courtenage at: [email protected].

Signed: Romanos Koutedakis, Anna Clarke, Gabriella Wyer, Simon Courtenage, Eleanor Robson, Neil Thornton, Farhad Foroutan-Esfahani, Conor Clarke,  Sailee Khurjekar, Peter Jackson, Glenda Hall, Andrew Newton, Thomas Frankfort, Antonio Mateiro, Mattias Ahlgren, Mark Higgins, Alistair Shaw, Maryam Aghdami, Lauren Slater.

[Note: The original image of the letter has been replaced with an updated version that corrrects the spelling of two names.]

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