Outrage as Sheffield University confirms closure of archaeology department
Union members are to register a dispute with the University of Sheffield after it ratified plans this week to close its department of archaeology.
In an emergency general meeting attended by more than 200 people on Thursday, members of the University and College Union’s (UCU) Sheffield branch voted to ballot for industrial action.
The meeting was called in response to the university’s announcement that it would endorse a recommendation by its executive board to close the department while retaining some areas of research.
Following the meeting, UCU Sheffield branch officer Robyn Orfitelli said: “Today Sheffield UCU members voted overwhelmingly to fight the planned closure of our archaeology department, which would harm students, staff and the global study of archaeology.”
In a social media post, UCU Sheffield added: “We do not accept this closure, we will not accept redundancies, and we will not accept a university which is not run in a transparent, democratic, and accountable manner.”
The union said the decision had been “railroaded through the university’s governance processes” in the face of widespread opposition from staff, students and heritage sector bodies such as the Council for British Archaeology, the Society of Antiquaries and the European Association of Archaeologists. A petition opposing the move has attracted almost 47,000 signatures so far.
In addition to reversing the closure, UCU members are demanding that the university “commit to developing an action plan [...] for meaningful investment in the future of archaeology as a coherent discipline and department at Sheffield”.
In a statement on social media, Sheffield Archaeology departmental staff condemned the way the process had been conducted, saying they had been informed of the closure in a 13-minute online meeting and were not given an opportunity to respond because their microphones and cameras were turned off.
The statement said: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms the decision taken by the university as well as the rudeness and lack of professionalism of the form of communication. This is a decision that harms both the university and the city of Sheffield… Our campaign to oppose this calamitous decision will continue.”
Museums Journal understands that staff have not yet been informed what will happen to their roles.
Union members also voted for a second motion calling for the resignation of members of the university’s executive board, saying the proposed closure has brought “shame and ridicule to the university and enormous mental health strain to current and former students and staff”.
The university said archaeology will continue to be taught and researched in other departments, with a focus on postgraduate studies. It blamed falling student numbers for the closure, with fewer than 10 firm offer holders for undergraduate archaeology courses in the next academic year.
In a statement, the university said: “The university's executive board made the recommendation in the face of challenging external pressures, not least a declining interest in studying archaeology by undergraduates, a trend which has been experienced by many leading universities over the past five years. It believes archaeology teaching and research can thrive at Sheffield through focusing on key areas of excellence, and teaching and research at postgraduate level.”
The university said an implementation group will “consider the views of staff and students as it develops detailed proposals” on the areas of teaching and research that will be retained.
University vice-chancellor Koen Lamberts said: “Not only will we maintain and support archaeology at the university, we will work with our colleagues and partners to ensure it thrives through focusing on postgraduate studies and investing in key areas of excellence which have contributed to Sheffield’s reputation as a top 100 global university with world-leading research and innovation.”
Heritage professionals have warned that the decision is a “canary in the coalmine” for arts and humanities subjects in higher education.
Archaeologist Flint Dibble tweeted that “everyone in higher education should be scared” following the closure.
He said: “Sheffield Archaeology was - and still is - a powerhouse in the field of archaeology. Just a year ago, it ranked in the top departments in the world [and] is widely recognised as a world leader in archaeology… Nothing is safe from temporary and powerful administrators who've made a decision behind closed doors.”
Dibble also questioned what would happen to the “incalculable heritage resources” and specimens held in the department’s laboratories.
The announcement comes as heritage professionals and organisations prepare to take part in this year’s UK-wide Festival of Archaeology, which runs from 17 July to 1 August and takes “exploring local places” as its theme.
Ahead of the festival’s launch, the Council for British Archaeology has announced the appointment of public archaeologist and broadcaster Raksha Dave as its next president.
Dave, who is known for programmes such as Time Team and Digging for Britain, said she was committed to breaking down “elitist false impressions” about archaeology and making it relevant to young people during her term.