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Firth Court, the administrative centre of Sheffield University
[ Peter Barr, CC BY-SA 2.0]

If the senior management of Sheffield University thought they had wrong footed any potential opposition by railroading through their shock plan to see the curtain fall on one of of Britain’s oldest and most respected archaeology departments in just five days, then well over sixteen thousand signatures on a petition raised in less than twenty four hours and an archaeological sector, for once, united in not just anger, but apparently also in action, might disabuse them of that thought. What faces Sheffield University Vice Chancellor, Professor Koen Lamberts and his colleagues now is a dilemma born of the economics of trying to run modern university via an unaccountable management structure, when an ideologically driven, interventionist Government holds the purse strings, and a group of staff and students are utterly committed to both their jobs and their subject, won’t just roll over and have access to the Social Media. What happens next might just indicate a direction of travel for the entire archaeological sector, the stakes are that high, but this is the story so far.

thePipeLine understands from emails and accounts published by Sheffield insiders, that the current crisis facing the archaeology department at the Yorkshire university began when the departmental management asked for three additional posts to be created and funded in order to reinvigorate the department’s teaching.

This request came against the background of a fall in the number of teaching staff from twenty nine in 2004 to eleven currently. A situation which, staff claim, had led the university to suggest the department was not generating enough income to the extent it was becoming financially unsustainable.

However, as the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic began to bite in mid 2020, in spite of having initially endorsed the plan, to the extent of creating and funding the posts, the University’s senior management first suspended the posts, then executed an abrupt U-turn.

With Government plans for the road map out of Covid-19 being put in place, the archaeology department asked for the three agreed posts to be re-instated for the coming academic year 2021-2022. However, instead of reinstating the posts already agreed and funded, the University withdrew the offer of the new posts and funding completely, at the same time placing the entire department under, so called, “institutional review”.

Under institutional review the entire range of activity of a teaching or research department is assessed, with the expectation that university management would then making a decision about that department’s future. Such reviews are commonly seen as providing a figleaf of accountability and process behind which significant changes, usually involving cuts or closure, can be put in place by senior managers.

After two rounds of interviews by the review panel, involving taking feedback from staff and current students, the results of this review were communicated to staff and students of the Department of Archaeology on 19 May.

While no business case or supporting evidence have been made public by the University to date, the recommendations of the review have been published, and they are stark.

Barring a last minute change of timetable, on 25 May the Executive Board [EB] of Sheffield University, the university’s senior decision making body, headed by the Vice Chancellor Professor Koen Lamberts, will choose between these three options,

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1. To investment in the Department with new posts and the development of new programmes. That is the option the department originally requested and which the university had appeared to agree to and fund.

2.  To close the Department completely.
3.  To retain Archaeology as a discipline, but not as a department.

Under this last option what are described by the University as “key programmes” and an undisclosed number of current staff, would be retained, but would be “re-aligned” to other departments within the University. However, it is understood that department members were told that as few as two of the current Archaeology Masters courses would be so retained, with jobs retained in the low single figures.

Under options two and three existing students would allowed to complete their courses, but both options would see the effective end of over half a century of teaching archaeology at Sheffield.

While two of the options do also retain archaeology in some form, it is also pointed out that a direction of travel is apparent in that the two options envisage at the least cuts of the kind which would render the subject almost invisible in terms of Sheffield’s offer to prospective students. A situation which would be likely to see the subject effectively wither on the vine and at serious risk being eliminated in a later round of reorganisation.

In accounts widely circulated on-line, Sheffield insiders have also commented that, at the 19 May meeting with the University pro Vice Chancellor where the recommendations of the review were announced, the sense among at least some attendees was that, while no comments were made in favour of any of the recommendations, there was the impression of a bias towards options two and three. That is downgrading or closure.

This fed the feeling that a decision may already have been taken at the highest level of management to, at the very least, favour the elimination of archaeology as a coherent subject and at worst see its total removal.

The timing of the announcement of the results of the institutional review by University management has also prompted anger and suspicion.

With news of the results of the review and the three options only breaking in public on the afternoon of Wednesday [19 May], and with reports that students of the department were only informed directly in an email timed at 8.46pm on Wednesday evening, the university had left only three full working days, split by a weekend, for the department to try to muster support for archaeology ahead of the Executive Board meeting to make its decision on Tuesday [25 May].

thePipeLine asked the Sheffield University media office how the University reacted to the suggestion that the timing of the announcement of the options to be voted on by the Executive Board on 25 May was designed to prevent proper scrutiny of those options, and to prevent any campaign by staff, students and the wider heritage sector, to get the options properly reviewed from gaining momentum?

The University did not respond to the question.

However, other people concerned with the potential closure have been less reticent. Professor of Zooarchaeology, Professor Umberto Albarella , told the Sheffield Telegraph,

“Concerned is an understatement. We are concerned on many levels, concerned for our jobs and livelihoods and salaries, but even more importantly we are concerned that all the work that has been done for decades is going to be destroyed by this decision taken by managers that don’t really understand much of what we do.

Professor Albrella added,

“I call this a catastrophic failure of management.”

Professor Albrella elaborated on this theme for the Yorkshire Post telling the region’s key local newspaper,

“There is disappointment and shock, and it’s seen as hostility from the management. We didn’t expect the decision so soon. Regardless of personal concerns about jobs and income, we feel very strongly that closure would not be in the best interests of the university.”

An anonymous member of staff reported on Twitter was somewhat less diplomatic, describing the attitude of university management to money generated by the archaeology department as,

“…rather Machiavellian”


“…it is a bit like working for a greedy loan shark.”

It is suggested that the alleged failure of management is highlighted by the University suggesting on the one hand that a department is unviable at institutional review, while telling prospective students in the University prospectus,

“The archaeology workforce in the UK needs to grow by 25 per cent over the next five years and by 64 per cent by 2033 to meet the demands of infrastructure projects. Sheffield graduates are highly skilled and equipped to join this growing industry.”

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In other words, the University’s principle marketing tool, the prospectus, seems to be arguing implicitly that properly supported, and staffed appropriately, the supposedly “unviable” Department of Archaeology could soon be taking on the increasing numbers of students demanded by the industries which are supporting directly the Government’s policy to “Build Back Better” after the Covid pandemic and to “level up” the infrastructure of the north of England, including Yorkshire.

This suggestion of, at best, mixed messaging, [or to critics of the University’s management, perceived ignorance bordering on cynicism], aggressive timing and an apparent desire to avoid scrutiny, may be one reason why in a widely circulated response to the proposed cuts posted on Twitter the General Secretary of the University College Union [UCU], Dr Jo Grady, described the actions of Vice Chancellor Lamberts and his senior management team at Sheffield as,

“Absolutely disgusting!”

Another reason lying behind the vehemence of Dr Grady’s comment may be the perception that a group of academics who have spent the last year trying to maintain effective teaching and offer Sheffield students the best experience possible under very trying conditions, now face the loss of their jobs and the destruction of a department with world class reputation, which it has taken decades to build.

However, at the time of writing there are signs that the Vice Chancellor and his colleagues may not be having things entirely their own way.

That a respected department with a world class reputation, located in a top tier Russell Group university, the supposed elite of British Higher Education, could face extinction at the hands of its own managers has sent shockwaves through the UK heritage sector.

This has had the effect that, while the loss of 50% of higher level funding to archaeology courses went by almost un mentioned in the archaeological community until recently, Sheffield has become a line in the sand. The sense seems to be that, if archaeology at Sheffield can be terminated with extreme prejudice so abruptly, then nowhere in UK archaeology is safe.

It is that realisation, coupled with attacks on the humanities in general under the Government’s so called “war on woke”, which seems to have driven the sector to more or less unified public action in the way that earlier cuts to archaeology, for example at the Sussex University and Hull University, had not.

There seems to be particular concern also that Sheffield’s reputation is founded on its work at the cutting edge of laboratory based archaeological science, not at the more theoretical end of the discipline which can be dismissed as not contributing to the economy of dynamic Brexit Britain under the Government’s avowedly transactional relationship with higher education.

Indeed, earlier this year Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that Archaeology, along with the Art and Design, Music, Dance, Drama and Media Studies were no longer strategic priorities for the Government and that higher level [C1.2] funding for such courses would be reduced accordingly by 50% in the 2021/2022 academic year and with further reductions likely in future years.

Cynics point out also that these are also low paid sectors of the economy where graduates are less likely to repay all, or even a large part of their student loans, leaving the Treasury with the bill.

This leads to the troubling perception for the archaeology sector that the problem as far as the Government is concerned, is with the discipline of archaeology itself, even when it presents itself as effectively a STEM subject rather than as part of the Humanities.

Whatever the motivation, at the time of writing, responses attacking the proposed cuts at Sheffield have been published by a number of the leading organisations in the heritage sector, including from the Council for British Archaeology, the Society of Antiquaries, the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists.

Unusually, several commercial archaeological units, companies which need the kind of specialist skills Sheffield graduates possess, have also weighed in on the side of the threatened department, including two of the largest, Museum of London Archaeology and PreConstruct Archaeology.

In this context it is worth pointing out that the Department of Archaeology has been in the process of having some of its courses accredited by the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists. A status which would, if granted, make a seamless transition from university to professional archaeology in the commercial sector even more viable for Sheffield graduates.

However, perhaps most significantly in terms of the landscape against which the arguments will play out over the next few days, a petition set up on on 20 May has already gathered over seventeen thousand signatures in under twenty four hours and shows no sign of slowing down.

It is also being reported in local news media Sheffield that Sheffield MP’s Olivia Blake and Paul Blomfield are due to meet representatives of the UCU early next week to discuss the threatened closure.

In other words, for the Vice Chancellor the decision on which option to adopt is ceasing to be an internal university matter and has entered the public domain.

The campaigners, and not least the staff and student body, will likely be hoping that the strength and vehemence of the response to the threat of closure, much coming from far beyond Sheffield itself, and with politicians beginning to be involved, may force the Vice Chancellor to, at the very least, postpone the decision due to be made on Tuesday.

However, if the University management continue on their apparent course it is clear from other current disputes at Chester and Leicester, that academic staff, their union [the University College Union], and student bodies affected directly by the actions of management, are increasingly willing to take local action in opposing perceived injustices in their treatment and to try to mobilise wider support. Particularly so when management is alleged to respond to criticism either provocatively, or dismissively as has been alleged at both Chester and Leicester.

A spokesperson for the Sheffield branch of the UCU told the Yorkshire Post,

“We will strongly defend any cuts and the archaeology department has our full support. We have considerable concerns about jobs in arts and humanities departments. Across the universities sector, these departments are under real threat as the current government values STEM subjects.” adding,

“It’s a marketisation of education that undervalues the skills and experiences to be gained from studying these subjects.”

It follows that if Vice Chancellor Lamberts insists on toughing it out and either option two or option three are adopted on Tuesday, then Sheffield University may find itself engaged in a protracted struggle and possibly even on the way to becoming an academic pariah.

The Vice Chancellor needs only to look south down the M1 to see such a warning enacted in real time.

After similarly controversial and allegedly high handed actions by its Vice Chancellor, the University of Leicester is currently trending in the worst way possible for an organisation which is dependent on good public relations and publicity for attracting students, commercial sponsors and research partners.

The trending hash tag is #BoycottLeicester and an early casualty of the boycott campaign is a highlight of the British Archaeological Year, the annual Theoretical Archaeology Group [TAG] Conference, the organisation of which has been paused in response to the boycott campaign.

It is an unintended irony of the current situation that the dancefloor at the TAG after party was often graced [if that is the right word] by the late Dr Don Henson, a pre-historian and dedicated public archaeologist and educator, who sadly died just a few weeks ago.

Dr Henson is just one of the many influential, world class, archaeologists who began, or made, their careers in the archaeology department at Sheffield and there will be many who will hope that, as British archaeology mourns one of its most loved and respected figures, it won’t also find itself mourning the department of which he wrote,

“…everything changed in 1975, when I left for Sheffield University to study archaeology, and I found my home”.

Asked to comment about the proposals contained in the institutional review and a series of questions regarding other issues connected to the controversy, a University of Sheffield spokesperson said:

“The University of Sheffield has undertaken a review of its Department of Archaeology. Staff and student representatives participated in the review, and no decisions have been taken.”

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thePipeLine is an independent news publication that investigates the place that heritage, politics, and money meet.

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