Firth Court, the administrative centre of Sheffield University
[ Peter Barr, CC BY-SA 2.0]
More details have begun to emerge of the process behind the controversial decision which saw the Executive Board of Sheffield University vote to close the internationally renowned Archaeology Department, retaining just a few aspects of the department’s current activity within other departments of the University. In particular thePipeLine has been shown a copy of a letter sent to the Vice Chancellor of Sheffield University, Professor Koen Lamberts , and members of the University’s Executive Board, by two distinguished members of the Archaeology Department, Professor of Archaeology Emeritus Paul Halstead, and Professor of Archaeology Emerita Glynis Jones. Professors Halstead and Jones make various accusations about the way the University has managed the Archaeology Department over a period of years and offer carefully argued criticisms of the way the University’s institutional review into the Archaeology Department handled, and they allege mishandled, the evidence it presented to the Executive Board. The picture they present is one of a department struggling over many years to get senior managers at Sheffield to understand the consequences of their own financial and administrative decisions, only for the department to be blindsided by previously unannounced demands and blamed when the effect of those managerial decisions turn out to be negative for the department as judged by the criteria set by those same managers.
The letter, which was sent on 22 May, three days before the Executive Board met to decide the fate of the Archaeology Department, focuses on known aspects of the review panel’s assessment of what it saw as the department’s most serious weaknesses. That is that the department attracts too few students, and generates too little too little research income. The institutional review claimed, this meant the Archaeology Department lacks financial viability.
With universities claimed to be under pressure from the Treasury to reduce costs, student numbers and the Government’s exposure to unpaid, or underpaid, student loans, the financial viability of courses and the ability of those courses to deliver well paid career paths has become the overriding criterion for the management of UK Higher Education in 2021.
However, Professors Halstead and Jones state that the apparently objective statistics indicating such a financial underperformance by the Archaeology Department have not been placed in their proper context.
While not addressing the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson’s announcement that archaeology is not a strategic priority for the Government, and admitting that there is probably shrinking pool of applicants to archaeology programmes joining from schools nationally, the letter claims that the University’s ability to recruit from schools has been “progressively compromised” by the University’s insisting on raising the minimum A-level grades required.
Professors Halstead and Jones admit that they understand that there is a rationale for this in marketing terms. However, they state that the admissions policy,
“…is disingenuously presented as an exercise in raising academic standards.”
They further claim that attempts to discuss with managers the reliability of A-level scores as predictors of degree grades in archaeology have been met with,
“…silence or (off-the-record) admission that they are poor predictors; they are particularly poor predictors in subjects such as archaeology that are largely not taught in schools.”
GCSE Archaeology was discontinued in English schools in 2006 and A-Level Archaeology in October 2016.
The upshot of this is that the Archaeology Department was required to make it harder for students to join the department, while they were unable to predict the success of those same students.
At the same time the authors observe that some routes into the department for local mature students have also been closed down by the University.
Taken together, this combination of national decline and local factors imposed by the management of the University mean it is not surprising that the numbers of students recruited to the department has been falling and it is hard to see what the staff of the department could do about it.
The letter also contains the allegation that the financial deficit which the University claims the Archaeology Department operates is, in fact, a result of decisions taken by the University’s own managers. The authors report it has been demonstrated that if the same financial criteria as apply at Sheffield were applied to the respected and successful archaeology department at York University that department too would be shown to be running at a deficit. Conversely, if the financial criteria under which York operates were applied at Sheffield the doomed department would actually run at a healthy surplus.
In other areas too the authors of the letter allege that negative conclusions on the part of the institutional review are the result of a failure to compare like with like, or to apply equal standards, across the University’s teaching. For example, it is claimed that, while the MA in Cultural Heritage Management [which may be retained] is criticised for over-reliance on a single student market, China, the same criticism appears not to be aimed at the University’s Management School.
There has also been criticism from the University of the leadership of the Archaeology Department under current Head of Department, Professor Caroline Jackson.
The two professors have a stinging observation to make about this claim too, stating such a view may be based,
“…more on her [Professor Jackson’s] attempt to act as conduit upwards of the ideas and concerns of her departmental colleagues rather than downwards of the instructions of University senior management.”
In other words, it is alleged that by advocating for her department and her staff, Professor Jackson has paid the price for not acting as a the Mini Me, junior executive of Vice Chancellor Lamberts and his senior management team.
While admitting that senior management must ultimately manage the University, Halstead and Jones suggest Vice Chancellor Lamberts and his colleagues in the senior management team are unwilling to enter into discussion about alternative suggestions from staff, observing,
“…we believe their reluctance to listen to counter-views from below represents a grave error of judgement.”
However, perhaps the most serious allegation contained in the letter is the suggestion that the actual process of destabilising and downgrading archaeology at Sheffield may have began some years before the University put in place its Institutional Review in 2020 at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Professors Halstead and Jones claim that,
“Over at least two decades, successive HoDs [ Heads of Department] in Archaeology have attended annual planning meetings at which they have been wrong-footed by the tabling of additional data or rules of engagement which had not been shared with them in advance. Such secrecy meant that time spent in preparation at departmental level was largely wasted and that the HoD’s attempts to plan for the future were undermined.”
These accusations of a department asked to play on a slanted pitch with moving goalposts also cover a period when the staff in the Archaeology Department fell from a high of twenty nine to just eleven today.
Such a fall in numbers brings with it, the authors argue, a consequent increase in the teaching and administrative workload for the staff who remain.
Crucially, the authors claim that these pressures impact inevitably on the ability of those staff who remain to generate research profiles and thus the ability to attract the very research income which the University claims is so critical to the future of the Department.
The two academics end by stating that their letter is written out of deep care for both archaeology and what they describe as, “the distinctive Sheffield version thereof,” but also out of care for the University.
It is that which prompts their damning conclusion.
While stopping short of suggesting that the Archaeology Department has been deliberately set up to fail, an accusation which has been made by others, Professors Halstead and Jones, state that in their view,
“The threat to the survival of Sheffield Archaeology is based on uncritical presentation of fundamentally flawed data (something academics try to avoid across the spectrum from Humanities to Social and Natural Sciences) and on a model of leadership that is detrimental to the institution as a whole.”
thePipeLine asked Sheffield University how it responded to the suggestions that the University has for some time attempted to undermine the efforts of the Archaeology Department to plan for the future?
That fundamentally flawed data, of a standard which would not be acceptable from other teaching departments at their own University, has been used to justify the down grading of archaeology at Sheffield?
And, that the style of Leadership offered by the Vice Chancellor Lamberts is detrimental to the institution of Sheffield University?
The University Media Office responded,
“Thank you for your email. We don’t have anything to add to the statement we sent across earlier this week.”
This is that statement, which was released following the decision of the University Executive Board to adopt the proposal to end archaeology as a stand alone department at Sheffield,
“The University is committed to retaining areas of strength in archaeology teaching and research at Sheffield. The University’s Executive Board is recommending that key areas of strength are aligned to other University departments, with enhanced investment for excellence.
We will continue to play a role in our local communities and honour our commitment to all current students who will continue to receive high quality teaching, research supervision and support .”
Here it is worth observing that Sheffield University states that among its corporate values,
“We are open and transparent about the decisions we make.”
The Ethical Code of the University goes further stating that the University will,
“Behave with independence, consistency, honesty and transparency in all our
It would appear that at least two of the University’s most distinguished former members of staff believe that in its treatment of the Archaeology Department and its staff, the University has fallen some way short of those ideals.
It remains to be seen how those alleged failings of practice and process will be reflected in discussions at the meeting of the University’s advisory Senate on 23 June and at the University Council which, shortly afterwards, will make the final decision about whether the more than fifty years of teaching at the Archaeology Department, which gifted the University a world class reputation for the subject, will come to an end.