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The Hive, housing the University of Worcester’s Library the Worcester city library and the Worcestershire County Archive and Archaeology Service
[Elliott Brown: CC BY-SA 2.0]

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Built adjacent to the city of Worcester’s historic city wall, the unmistakable, angular shape of the Hive was created to integrate Worcestershire County Council’s public library, the University of Worcester’s academic library, and the county Archive & Archaeology Service under one spectacular golden roof. Opened by HM Queen Elizabeth II on 12 July 2012, the Hive contains over 12 miles (19 km) of shelving holding the county archive collections of documents, maps and images. Documents which include including William Shakespeare’s marriage bond to Anne Hathaway, and not to mention around a quarter of a million books and more than 26,000 records making up the county’s Historic Environment Record. A pioneering community initiative bringing together Town and Gown, the Hive is a symbol of the University of Worcester’s close connection with the local community out of which it grew in the second half of the twentieth century. However, from next July [2022] the only people from the University of Worcester who will not be able to use it’s rich collection of historical material, or the resources and archive of the county Archaeology Service, are students on the University’s own, highly regarded, Archaeology courses. That is because last Tuesday, 17 August 2021, after twenty years, the University told staff the course was to be closed with no discussion and no alternatives considered.
thePipeLine tells the inside story of the latest casualty in the fight to retain archaeology as a significant presence in UK Higher Education and the many disquieting questions which the proposed closure raises.

Following close on the the shock decision in May to close the Archaeology Department at Sheffield University, and the narrow escape of the Archaeology Department at the University of Chester from swinging cuts, the latest blow to to archaeology in Higher education was met with shock and anger by individuals and organisations in archaeology and the heritage sector.

Responding to the announcement of the closure of the Archaeology course at the University of Worcester the Council for British Archaeology [CBA] tweeted,

“The announcement that the University of Worcester’s Archaeology department is set to close is yet another significant blow to archaeology in the UK. The programme was extremely well regarded, providing excellent opportunities for its students and graduates.”

Meanwhile the archaeologist, broadcaster and recently appointed president of the CBA, Raksha Dave highlighted the social cost to archaeology of the closure of a department like Worcester, tweeting,

“Another archaeology university department closure @worcester_uni – a worrying trend as more Unis outside the Russell Group close. Narrowing the diversity of choice for HE will ultimately lead to a less diverse workforce. It’s obvious we have a lot of work to do.”

Ms Dave’s comment is significant.

Statistics suggest that, while by age and gender archaeology undergraduates more or less match the broader undergraduate population, archaeology is much less popular among BAME students, with only 9% of UK archaeology students identifying with this group as opposed to 28% identifying as BAME in the total undergraduate population.

The sense that managers at the University of Worcester had inflicted a significant blow on a sector which many observers regard as increasingly demoralised and reeling from attacks on a number of fronts, has been prompted not least by the sense of shock that news of the decision broke on an August evening in the so called silly season, having apparently sprung from nowhere.

Now, following extensive conversations with individuals close to the process at Worcester, thePipeLine is able to offer this timeline, explaining how the University of Worcester’s managers came to axe their archaeology department and end twenty years of successful and well regarded teaching, apparently without consulting anyone outside of their own closed circle of decision making.

While archaeology may have been considered for closure earlier, the first proof that moves were afoot to reassess the University’s relationship with the subject came on 3 June 2020.

On that day, two and a half months into the Covid-19 pandemic, Archaeology staff at the University of Worcester were informed that the university had decided to suspend recruitment for the September 2020 cohort to join the Archaeology & Heritage degree at the University. 

Staff make it clear that they were not consulted about this by their management.

Subsequently, recruitment was also suspended for the 2021/2022 and 2022/23 academic years, after the university commissioned a Course Viability Report from consultants The Knowledge Partnership. 

Overall the report, which has been seen by thePipeline, painted a bleak picture of Archaeology in Higher Education, concluding that there was a declining market for the discipline, with the number of students taking archaeology courses in Higher Education Institutions falling by 4% from an already relatively low base, during the period from 2014 to 2019.

However, the report added one bright spot for archaeology at Worcester, adding that [our italics],

“Although a BA/BSc Archaeology programme may get more students than
combinations, Worcester has appeared to do better than expected with BA Archaeology and Heritage Studies.”

In that context it is important to stress that the report did not recommend the closure of the archaeology course at Worcester.

The report also acknowledges its limitations and suggests to the managers who had commissioned it that,

“…while it does not fully test student preferences or understanding of courses titles, for which primary research would be required. This could be undertaken as a further step in the university’s research.”

However, there is currently no evidence that the Worcester’s senior managers commissioned any such further research.

Instead, the management team seem to have accepted the less than fully developed report at face value and moved on, encouraging their archaeology staff to come up with proposals for two new degree schemes, which after several months work, at the height of the unprecedented stresses of the Covid Pandemic, and while trying to maintain distance teaching of the existing students, they did.

However, on 21 January [2021] these proposals were rejected at a meeting of the University Academic Planning and Portfolio Group (APPG).

The university claimed it could not accept the proposals because it was still not confident in the strength of the market for Archaeology.

It may be a coincidence, but this decision was communicated at the same time as Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, was instructing the Office for Students to reduce the higher level funding for archaeology in Universities by 50%. A decision which has since been reversed.

As things stood after the January meeting of the APPG, the university had rejected the two new courses the staff had developed. However, management now offered the possibility of continuing to teach archaeology through a taught Masters programme alongside Apprenticeship courses. Also raised was the possibility of retaining an undergraduate level degree in Archaeology & History if more synergy between the two subjects could be developed – essentially this would have required History changing focus or offering additional modules that better married up with Archaeology and vice versa.

However, bizarrely, the discussions about the potential for a new course part taught by the archaeology department, excluded the staff of the archaeology department entirely.  It was following discussions between the respective Heads of School and the History team only, that archaeology staff were told that the proposed new degree was not practical because there was too much disparity between the subjects as taught at Worcester.
A number of sources report also that in May 2021 the Head of the School of Science and the Environment, within which Archaeology at Worcester sits, Professor Peter Seville, may have let the cat out of the bag about the Universities ultimate intentions, communicating to staff that, owing to perceived disjoints between the areas covered by History and Archaeology, the University would not offer archaeology at undergraduate level after the existing cohort of students had finished their studies.

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That said, Professor Seville may have either realised that he had mis-spoken, or was instructed to reverse ferret by someone further up the University food chain, because the same sources report that he subsequently rowed back, referring only to the possibility of course closures, undertaken according to the University’s published procedures, and to the development of the replacement courses which the archaeology team had been asked to prepare, not to an actual ending of undergraduate archaeology at Worcester altogether as he had suggested.

In other words the staff were led to believe developing new courses for the University was still the option being pursued by their management.

That perception of genuine negotiation also had another consequence. There was also no attempt on the part of the staff in the Archaeology department to warn the wider archaeological sector about what was going on and what could be coming down the track.

Thus an opportunity for the sector to intervene to support the staff team was lost.

As one source told thePipeLine,

“We deliberately didn’t disclose at the start as we thought we were in serious honest discussion with senior management – so much for that!”

This reaction came about because on Tuesday, [17 August 2021], the archaeology course team at the University of Worcester attended what they believed was to be routine team meeting to share information with Head of School, Professor Seville. Only when the meeting started did they discover that the meeting was in actual fact a formal stage 1 consultation review, which had the purpose of “reviewing the staffing resource associated with teaching Archaeology”.

In essence staff at the meeting were told that the senior management of the university had decided that,

  • Archaeology would no longer be offered as a discipline from the end of the academic year 2021/2022.
  • no proposals for new Archaeology courses would be considered by the University (including the proposals which had already been worked on extensively, and which were due to be submitted in just a few weeks in September),
  • Current Archaeology staffing will need to be reduced to 1.5 Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) posts from January 2022, to “teach out” the degree and finally that,
  • Staffing will be reduced to 0 FTE from July 2022

All staff were thus informed that they are at risk of redundancy.

The staff were left stunned and angry at the abruptness of the announcement, and questioned what had changed so radically that the plans they had been asked to prepare for presentation in just a few weeks were to be so unceremoniously binned. 

The human cost of the decision by management is also stark.

With the recent termination of employment of a member of academic staff who had been on a temporary contract, the Archaeology Department currently consists of 3.5 FTE staff.

The department now has to be reduced from 3.5 FTE staff in August to 1.5 FTE by January.

This can only be done by reducing contracted hours of each post commensurate with anticipated Archaeology teaching workload, to give a total of 1.5 FTE, or by a a reduction in the departmental headcount alongside a reallocation of teaching, to give a total of 1.5 FTE.

However, in the harsh reality of employment law, staff explain that, in the absence of the offer of a redundancy package from the University, if they reduce their hours they also reduce their potential redundancy payments.

This is because statutory redundancy is calculated on the basis of earnings over the final twelve weeks of employment, prior to the receipt of a redundancy notice.

thePipeLine understands that the purpose of the consultation period, as laid down by the University, is to consult with all affected staff members about ways of: 

  • Avoiding the proposed redundancies if possible;
  • Reducing the number of employees to be made redundant where the above is not possible; and,
  • Mitigating the consequences of redundancy where they are required.

Consultation will end on 5th October and staff state that it was made was made clear by the management that this was not a consultation about closing the course, as the University Executive Board have already decided this, but instead was limited to reviewing the staffing resource needed over the coming academic year.

“Ultimately” a source told thePipeLine, “they are closing us and are just trying to ensure a minimum of staff remain to teach out the degree.”

It is the issue of teaching out the degree which has also caused a great deal of anger and hurt among the student body.

Sources have told thePipeLine that not only was the student body impacted by the decision never consulted about the proposed closure, at the time of writing [Thursday night 19 August] they had had not yet even been told formally about the closure, let alone about arrangements for the teaching out of their degrees, the supervision of dissertations and other matters such as the potential loss of staff who were slated to teach, or to support, key modules, or areas of study.

Adding to the sense of anger is an e-mail reported to thePipeLine by a number of sources, in which the Head of School is said to have responded to a question over when the students will be told formally about the situation by saying they will be written to in a few days.

Cynics have suggested that letter will come when the University managers have actually worked out what it is they can offer students in the absence of the archaeology staff who were meant to be teaching them.

Satirical digs aside, there is a serious issue here.   

As far as the procedure adopted by the University is concerned this failure to consult students about something which could impact their academic and future careers so fundamentally would appear to be against at least the spirit of Bylaw 2 19.  of the University which states that the University Board of Governors is required [my italics],

“To ensure that all students and staff have opportunities to engage with the governance and management of the institution.”

The University’s published  Student Protection Plan and other governance documents also seem to require measures to be taken to consult and inform students about changes to courses earlier in the process than the stage of being told their course has been closed and their tutors are in the process of being sacked.

It is also possible that, if the course teach out offered is radically different from what the students signed up for, and agreed to pay for, the University might be open to challenge, including through complaints to the Office for Students.

As things stand, it is as if Worcester’s archaeology students have ponied up the cash for a brand new Range Rover, which are built just up the motorway in Solihull, and had it swopped by the dealer at the factory gate for a cut and shut banger.

thePipeLine asked the University of Worcester media team if students had been consulted about the proposed closure of their course under Bylaw 2 or any other of the University’s governing documents? 

We also asked if the students had been consulted when and how was this consultation undertaken?

Thus far, the University has declined to answer our specific questions.

Neither did the University offer any answer to the question as to whether, given the existing stresses on University staff, particularly in their facing significant uncertainty through restructuring during the Covid pandemic, did the University Executive Board see a written Health And Safety risk assessment and plan, to address the potential impact on the health of staff, particularly impact on their mental health, before it took the decision to end the teaching of Archaeology?

We also asked if the University was concerned by the suggestion from a number of our sources who echoed the concerns expressed by Raksha Dave, that removing a course which takes many of its students from the West Midlands, and which has an excellent record in attracting mature students and students from challenging backgrounds or with disabilities, the closure will have a negative impact on opportunities for students in the West Midlands and on diversity within the Archaeology Sector?

Specifically we asked if, given the goals of the University’s Access and Participation Strategy , did the University Executive Board receive a written risk assessment addressing diversity and the impact of the proposed closure on protected characteristics under the Equality Act and Human Rights Act, before it took its decision to close the Archaeology Department?

The University of Worcester has so far failed to provide an answer to that question also.

The University did however offer this statement,

“Following a declining interest in studying Archaeology, which has been seen UK-wide, the University of Worcester has very regretfully taken the decision to close the remaining offer in this subject. Applicant numbers have been very low for several years and have now declined to the level where a course in Archaeology at the University is simply unviable. We have made strenuous efforts to attract applicants but, despite all the efforts of the colleagues concerned and the work of the University as a whole, the trend away from studying Archaeology has proved to be deep seated and there is no alternative but to close the offer of our Archaeology courses.   

The small number of students who are currently completing their studies will continue to be supported to gain their qualifications. 

The number of staff affected is very small and the University will make every effort to find other ways of using their teaching expertise. Teaching staff concerned are being fully consulted.” 

Responding to the university’s statement one member of staff commented to thePipeLine,

“Well, wow. Probably the expected response, but still a kick in the nuts.”

Our source added,

Whilst I can see that maybe one or even two of my colleagues could be redeployed, probably on tiny fractional contracts.  The rest of us? No chance.”

While likely on balance, closure is not yet a done deal especially if it can be shown that the process adopted by the University has been at fault, the story of the intended demise of archaeology at Worcester raises once again significant questions about the competence, and accountability of senior university managers. Managers up to and including Professor David Green CBE Vice Chancellor and Chief Executive of the University and Deputy Vice Chancellor and Provost Professor Sarah Greer who seem to be prepared to see the Universities claims to be compassionate and supportive put under severe pressure and to throw away courses which have scored outstanding figures for student satisfaction, while delivering for those students some of the highest post graduate employment rates in UK Archaeology.

For the archaeology sector as a whole the pain of the likely loss of another source of new archaeologists may well lead to discussion of a greater concern.

That is how to address the apparent fact that so irrelevant are the sector’s principle organisations, from Historic England down, and so uninterested in the health of the heritage sector is the current Government, that uninformed, and in many cases probably uninterested, managers in in the Higher Education sector are now repeatedly making strategic decisions about who and how many, can access archaeology courses and where, without reference to anyone who actually knows anything about the place of archaeology in the wider economy, embedded as it is in industries which contribute billions to the national balance sheet.

As is argued for the Arts, support from Government and institutions for archaeology and heritage should be seen as investment, not subsidy, yet an increasing number of voices are asking, including of thePipeLine,

“Is Archaeology in the UK dying?”

And that is before we even consider the many questions left open about whether due process under their own constitutional documents was followed by the university managers at Worcester, and whether what has been done to the Archaeology Department, its staff, and to the opportunities available to potential students in the West Midlands, was ethical, or even totally lawful.

Many will see the fact that the University could even embark on this path, in this manner, with apparent impunity, as a damning indictment of the failure of the heritage sector to establish an image and structures capable of protecting its own for the public good.

Note: This article has been updated to make clear that the University of Worcester did not have a separate archaeology department.

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

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