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

When they meet later today [25 May 2021] to decide the fate of the internationally famous, highly regarded, and locally much respected, Archaeology Department at Sheffield University, the Vice Chancellor, Professor Koen Lamberts, and his colleagues on the Yorkshire university’s Executive Board [EB], face a decision which is much more complex than they might have assumed when the university first announced the three options for the department’s future barely six days ago. Critics of the plan say it is now clear that two of the options under consideration, to downgrade archaeology, or to end the teaching of the subject completely after fifty years, will lead to severe damage to the University’s reputation and perhaps inevitably lead also to a protracted dispute with its own staff, students and the wider archaeological sector. A dispute centred on the apparent lack of transparency and accountability of Sheffield’s senior management in reaching so far reaching a decision so quickly, and with no discernible external checks and balances to offer strategic perspective.

That said, when it comes to accountability, faced with a frustrating silence from their managers, there have still been serious attempts to engage with the Vice Chancellor and the Executive Board on the part of staff, students at Sheffield and supporters in the wider archaeological community.

First there is the matter of the more than thirty two thousand people [at the time of writing] who have signed a petition on the website to “Save Sheffield’s Archaeology Department”. Started by department student Liam Hand, to have mobilised so much support in just a few days is a remarkable achievement and serves as a warning to the Executive Board that, in spite of the secrecy surrounding the business case underlying the proposals and the artificially fast timetable driving the process, both of which appear designed to prevent discussion and intervention from outside, their decision is no longer just an internal matter for the University administration. The archaeological world is watching.

However, perhaps even more significant, and more dangerous to Professor Lamberts and his colleagues, is the e-mail sent to the Vice Chancellor by a senior member of Sheffield City Council, Heritage Champion, Councillor Mike Drabble. The e-mail converts what was probably intended by senior managers to be an easily controlled and steered discussion of internal University budgets and strategic priorities, to determine the fate of the Archaeology Department, into a much more complex political issue. One which goes to the heart of the City of Sheffield’s relationship with its elite, Russell Group, university.

In the e-mail dated 23 May, Cllr Drabble, who has been the City Council’s Heritage Champion since June 2019, warned Vice Chancellor Lamberts that he was “gravely concerned” that closing the archaeology department could taken as a signal the University does not care about the many heritage groups in Sheffield who seek to know themselves and their city better.

He added that such a move on the part of the University could even be exploited by those who seek to divide the communities of the City of Sheffield from the University.

Yet more seriously he presented that view as reflecting opinion from across the political spectrum. That is that by the threatening to close the Archaeology Department, the University risked alienating much of the Council, not just one political group.

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The emailed letter form Sheffield City Council Heritage Champion Cllr Mike Drabble to Sheffield University Vice Chancellor Professor Koen Lamberts
[Fair Use for the purpose of reporting]

This theme of localism was picked up by BBC Radio Sheffield, Breakfast Show presenter, Toby Foster, in an interview with Professor of Zooarchaeology Umberto Albarella, broadcast on 24 May.

Asked by Mr Foster about the archaeology department’s role in work across Sheffield, Professor Albarella said,

“They know very well that we are very much embedded in the city. You know sometimes there is this idea oh academics work in kind of ivory towers. We are just exactly the opposite of that. We have always been. We wanted the doors of the University open to the public and we do so, we are involved in so many community events…it looks like however University central management does not understand this very well.”

Finally on Monday [24 May] the controversy reached Westminster with a message being released on video by Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle, the former leader of the Green Party of England and Wales, Natalie Bennett.

In her message Baroness Bennett wished the staff and students good luck and then addressed the University’s administration directly.

Putting the dilemma facing the Executive Board in context Baroness Bennett observed, that she understood the pressures coming from a Westminster Government which she described as

“…quite frankly, Philistine and incredibly short sighted…”

She also cited the wave of people power which appears to be rolling towards the University, stating,

“As you’ve found in the past few days a great many people care very much and are very passionate about the continuation of the study of archaeology at the University of Sheffield and you need to do the right thing.”

However, when asked by thePipeLine if either the petition and its tens of thousands of names voicing objection to the proposed downgrading or closure, or Cllr Drabble’s letter, warning of the potential risks to Sheffield University’s relationship with its home city, would be tabled to the Executive Board as part of the formal discussion a spokesperson for Sheffield University declined to answer, instead telling thePipeLine,

“We don’t have anything else to add to our previous statement.”

That previous statement was issued on Friday [21 May] and stated,

“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.”

Of course, while refusing to answer questions is a standard and legitimate, public relations tactic. However, the downside for the body being asked those questions is that any failure to answer inevitably raises questions of transparency, accountability, the quality of the decision making underlying the silence and above all questioning motive.

Put simply, people are prompted to ask- “What have they got to hide?”

That said, there may well be other factors which are driving the University’s decision making about which it wishes to maintain a diplomatic radio silence. Principally silence over its relationship with the Government in Westminster because of the likelihood of further centrally imposed spending cuts to the University sector including Sheffield, coming later this year and, more controversially, because the Government appears to be engaged in a so called “Culture War”.

Opponents of the Government argue one front in that “war” is an assault on the humanities in universities, with suggestions that history and archaeology have been singled out for a financial kicking because they are subjects which set out to equip students to question historical assumptions and received narratives, rather than promote a politically comfortable national story.

The risk is that university managers, like those at Sheffield, might be accused of either trying to make trouble for the Government by being seen to argue a case against Government policy, for example by supporting the decolonisation of museums and public spaces, or alternatively, of being too close to the Government and acquiescing in the Government’s alleged Philistinism as Natalie Bennett claims.

It is a no-win situation for administrators, but many of their staff and students, might argue that if you are going down, one course is at least more honourable to take than the other.

The political context for this suggestion is that earlier this year Education Secretary Gavin Williamson instructed the Office for Students [OfS] to cut higher level [C1.2] funding for courses in archaeology and the creative arts by 50% in the 2021/2022 academic year, with further reductions likely in future years.

Mr Williamson’s announcement came amid reported concern in Whitehall over the Treasury’s exposure to unpaid student loans. That bill is currently rising at a rate reported to be around £10bn per year.

Meanwhile the world of higher education is also rife with speculation about further potential cuts which could be announced before the end of 2021, including caps on student numbers in what the Government claims are “low value” courses in the humanities and social sciences, including archaeology.

Such a decision would have a significant impact on the economic viability of such courses.

Some observers of the economics of Higher Education also argue it is no coincidence that, aside from considerations of the “Culture War”, archaeology and the performing arts are also traditionally poorly paid, insecure professions, where there might be a lower than normal expectation that an individual student loan will be paid off in large part, let alone in full.

In that reading universities like Sheffield are simply making the decision to cut archaeology now rather than waiting for Gavin Williamson [or whoever becomes Education Secretary next] to wield the axe later, when they might already be committed to recruiting another cohort of students and even more expensive pay offs to staff.

Whatever the truth of this one Vice Chancellor told the Guardian,

“We know something is coming and that it’s going to be bad. We just don’t know what it is yet.”

However, critics of Mr Williamson claim his apparent dismissal of the strategic value of archaeology seems not to take account of other areas of Government policy. Mr Williamson instructed the OfS to reprioritise funding towards high-cost, high-value subjects which support the NHS, healthcare policy, high-cost STEM subjects and/or specific labour market needs.

However, in a case of Whitehall’s right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing [or tell a fundamental part of its anatomy from its elbow] the Home Office recognise labour market needs and class archaeology as a “shortage occupation” allowing overseas applicants to apply for a “Skilled Worker visa“. A shortage archaeology departments like Sheffield should be well placed to fill.

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However, regardless of the perhaps contradictory smoke signals coming from Westminster, if it transpires that neither,

1. the petition,

2. the letters from a roll call of senior archaeological bodies ranging from the venerable Society of Antiquaries, to the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists which regulates professional standards across British archaeology, not to mention,

3. a letter from a senior councillor suggesting that closing the department represented a serious political and reputational risk to the University,

…were tabled by the Vice Chancellor and discussed fully by the Executive Board before making its decision, serious questions will inevitably be asked about the legitimacy of any decision to downgrade or close the Archaeology Department which follows.

The decision would have been made on partial information.

Add to this the failure of the University to publish a detailed business case outlining the options, and their costs, ahead of the meeting to allow for legitimate scrutiny by third parties, such as the University College Union which represents staff, and the legitimacy of the process effectively vanishes.

In the famous satire on government and bureaucracy “Yes Minister”, departmental permanent secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, would often challenge hapless minister Jim Hacker by observing that a particular decision was “brave”, with the obvious suggestion the minister’s decision would also be disastrous.

It remains to be seen if the decision about the fate of the department of Archaeology which is likely to be made by the Executive Board is equally “brave”.

Certainly the perception outside the University, including that of at least one of its closest friends and supporters, Sheffield City Council, seems to be that a decision to downgrade or close the archaeology department would be potentially disastrous for Sheffield University and its reputation, nationally and internationally.

But perhaps most important would be the damage done locally within the communities of Sheffield. Communities which the University’s archaeologists have spent years getting to know and serve.

It is understood that the executive Board will meet to discuss the three options, investment in archaeology, or its down grading or closure, at 10.00am, on Tuesday [25 May 2021].

Staff and students of the department and other supporters are holding a Covid-19 safe rally outside the University’s main administration building, Frith Hall, to coincide with the meeting.

The rally is being streamed live on Facebook.

The decision of the Executive Board should come later in the day.

Coincidentally staff in the Archaeology Department at the University of Chester, are also meeting later today to strategise their own campaign to save jobs at the highly rated department. The meeting comes ahead of a possible announcement of staff cuts, which could come in early July.

While there are local factors in play in Chester, such as an expansion to a new campus in Shrewsbury and a disastrous and costly attempt to open a new science campus next to an oil refinery without obtaining planning permission first, there is also the suspicion that archaeology is falling out of favour with university administrators.

In his blog respected Chester academic, Professor Howard Williams, wrote of the process at Chester,

“What was also chilling was an explicit claim by senior management that they regarded archaeology and heritage as oppositional to future-looking universities. This is truly shockingly ignorant and displays a fundamental lack of understanding of our academic disciplines.

Similar ignorance on the part of at least some managers has been reported at Sheffield and it is perhaps the fear that the view reported by Professor Williams has increasing traction, not just in Government, but in the senior managers of the very bodies which are meant to promote knowledge and learning as a good in society, which has driven tens of thousands of people to sign the petition to save archaeology at Sheffield.

In other words, the fight to save archaeology at Sheffield and at Chester, is the fight of every archaeologist, and the demand is that if the view reported by Professor Williams is genuinely the view of a cadre of management, at least be honest about it and have the fight in the open.

NOTE: This article was amended at 11.56 on 25 May 2021 to better reflect the situation facing staff at the University of Chester.

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

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