Royal Holloway: Classics in trouble

On Tuesday evening, the news started to break and travelled fast that Classics at Royal Holloway University of London was in trouble. On Thursday, it was confirmed in a statement released to the classicists’ email list by Anne Sheppard, their head of department:

Proposals for cuts affecting the Department of Classics and Philosophy at Royal Holloway

The College Council are setting up a formal consultation process over proposals for the following cuts affecting the Department of Classics and Philosophy:

1.  From September 2012 student numbers will be reduced to 40 per year, for BAs in Classical Studies and Ancient History as well as Joint Honours.  The Classics degree will be discontinued.

2.  The Philosophy staff, including one Ancient Philosophy post, will move to the Department of Politics and International Relations.

3.  A Research Professor, currently shared with English, will move into the English Department.

4.  Of the remaining 11 posts, 6 will disappear by 2014, leaving 5 staff who will then move, as a unit, to the History Department.

The consultation, which has not yet started, will run for 90 days.  The Department will be responding fully to the planning documents that are to be circulated.

Letters of support will be very welcome.  These should be addressed to the Principal, Prof. Paul Layzell, but should be sent in the first instance NOT directly to him but to the Department, so that we can collect them to use as we see fit.

Presumably deciding that attack was the best form of defence and that it would be a good plan to muster visible and countable support as soon as possible (in my view rightly so), members of the department have set up a facebook group “Save Classics at Royal Holloway”. As I write, the group has 3407 members (and growing), including a mix of current RHUL students from classics and other disciplines, alumni, staff, and friends of classics within academia and outside it.

Meanwhile, Mary Beard has blogged about the situation here and then here.

This rapid explosion of alarm and opposition seems to have taken the Principal of RHUL, Professor Paul Layzell, rather by surprise, to such a degree that he sent his (patient and courteous) Director of Communications, Helen Coleman, out to post a statement on the fb group, and then had her stay there batting on his behalf for most of Friday. She is there again today, Sunday (good for her; but I think this means the Principal was rattled). His statement read as follows:

I am concerned to see this debate on Facebook and would like to add my contribution.



Classics has a strong tradition at Royal Holloway, and I believe it plays an important part in the academic portfolio of our institution. It is for this reason that we are currently exploring options to ensure that we can continue to include Classics in our programme of teaching and research. It is not our intention to ‘close Classics’ as some have interpreted our proposals, but to retain it in a form that is sustainable in the long-term.

‘Do nothing’ is not an option. As things stand, the department runs at a considerable deficit which we cannot address through growing student numbers because of the cap government places on our total student numbers. This situation will be made worse if proposals in the HE White Paper remove around 7% home/EU undergraduate numbers from institutions.

As a relatively small institution, we cannot afford heavy cross subsidies that might undermine the financial sustainability of our institution as a whole. Instead, we must find ways to ensure that each of our subject areas delivers research and teaching of a sufficient quality, that is popular with students, and affordable to us and them. We have put forward proposals to enable Classics to do just this, and we have invited our staff to put forward their own ideas. Our intention is protect a discipline that we value, and secure its long term future within our College.

I had hoped that we would be able to have those discussions within our community, rather than in the public domain. I am concerned that public debate will only worsen the situation; prospective students could easily misunderstand our proposals to sustain Classics with the incorrect impression that ‘closure’ was imminent. Such an impression would almost certainly result in the failure to attract students, with dire consequences.



I invite staff, students and alumni to engage with us in the debate within College. By Monday, we will have a site within our intranet, that will allow us to debate these issues amongst ourselves, and work out the best solution together. We are at the stage where we have identified a problem, and I would urge you to work with us to solve it, rather than challenge us publicly and exacerbate the situation beyond remedy.

The appeal to keep everything on the inside and “pas devant” was stupid, partly because in PR terms it made the Principal look like a prat who was scared of openness (see here with quotations from yours truly and others), and partly because it was so obviously unrealistic. The Principal’s representative has stated that the college means to contact and invite debate from current students and alumni as well as other (unspecified) interested parties, and since this would add up to several hundred people it is inconceivable that the debate could have been kept under wraps anyway (this isn’t an internet age/ social networking phenomenon either; I’m sure the same would have been true twenty years ago, even if more slowly).

More importantly, it suggests that the Principal is ignorant of the meaning of his own proposals in terms of Classics as a discipline (I say “ignorant” because this seems more charitable than to accuse him of being disingenuous). The proposal does effectively mean to “close” Classics. This is not because the Classical degrees would be run from inside the History department (in a supportive institution, committed to Classics as a discipline, I am not sure that this kind of administrative detail necessarily matters all that much). Rather, it is because the proposal involves getting rid of large numbers of people from a strong and well-respected department, and because it involves stopping the Classics degree, i.e. the one which involves studying and reading in the ancient languages. All Classics departments (except in Oxford and Cambridge) do some of their teaching to students who are reading in translation, but this doesn’t alter the fact that reading the ancient languages is an integral part of Classics, even though not the only game in town (it seems stupid that one has to write this; would anybody take seriously a Department of German where they taught German literature only in English translation?!). The Principal is clearly scared of reputational damage, but this seems to indicate that he does not understand that this damage would be created by his proposals, rather than by the way in which people responded to them. For example, who will study as a graduate student in a department which is clearly so badly supported by its institution that it cannot keep Latin and Greek going?

Nor is the Principal right to speak as if those not directly associated with RHUL were somehow outsiders to the debate. Classics is not a big discipline, and only a few decisions like this by universities and colleges can do serious damage at the UK level. It is not only inevitable but right that other people care deeply about it, and Royal Holloway has a responsibility to preserve an important part of humanities education in the UK.

In fact, it seems overwhelmingly likely that, if these proposals become reality, it will be death by a thousand cuts, as Mary Beard has said. Those who are left among the staff will want to move elsewhere to somewhere where Classics is supported by its institution, and they will probably be replaced by non-classicists or not replaced at all; if they are replaced by classicists, then instead of getting the best people (and they have very good people now, because, as I suppose, it is a good institution with a good reputation in classics and close to good libraries) they will get those who would prefer to be somewhere else where they can do the job properly. Then quality will slip, and soon enough the classical programmes will be closed down for that reason.

As far as the substance of his explanation is concerned, and other arguments which will be made or may be made, there are a couple of points worth bearing in mind:

  • Financial sustainability: This is, as I strongly suspect, code for “the RAE score was not good enough”, and indeed RHUL Classics was in the bottom half of the table back in 2008. But half of all classics departments are below the median: that’s what “median” means. These include lots of departments which are generating large amounts of very high quality research. The reason for this is that there are no polytechnic-type low research departments in classics. It is a small subject, taught only in research departments, and coming low down in RAE doesn’t mean “bad at research”. This relates to the matter of the small size of the national classics establishment. If one department from the bottom half of the RAE (soon to be REF) list dies every two or three years, the number of classics departments will soon be reduced by a third or a half.
  • Student satisfaction surveys (see Mary Beard’s blog here): firstly, to think in terms of metrics, these are not a measure of how well a department looks after its students, but of how well a department does by comparison with the expectations of students (this is important: different students can have very different expectations, e.g. according to their previous educational background, and according to how they make comparisons with others. It’s for this reason that I believe that comparisons based on the National Student Survey are not worth the paper they are printed on: the NSS’s entire raison d’être is based on the obviously false premise that students are responding from the viewpoint of a disengaged outside observer). Secondly, departments seek students’ views in order to make things better. If the department is doing well, they will get constructive criticism, and respond to it, because the students are taking their work seriously. If there is little criticism, it probably means the students are not very engaged and are just waiting to be told things. A department which is in a secure position in a supportive institution will look for criticism; if there is a belief that the institution is seeking whom it may devour, then the department will be under constant pressure to discourage serious student engagement of this kind, and the result will be contrary to the best interests of the students.

Anyway, that is the gloomy part. The good news is that there is a consultation, and whether the Principal of RHUL intends this as a real debate or merely a matter of form, others are already taking the debate to him. I think, from the way in which he responded to the fb page, that he is clearly rattled, and that, like other people at the top of institutions, he doesn’t like being cast as the villain of the piece one little bit. Nick Lowe, a member of the department (also a careful and helpful examiner of my doctoral thesis, as it happens, beside his many more important accomplishments!), said on a post to the classicists’ mailing list that “None of this is actually determined, and as far as the Department is concerned we’re still very much in business and fully intend to remain so.”

And N very B the invitation in Anne Sheppard’s statement above: letters opposing these terrible proposals should be addressed to the Principal but sent to her at RHUL, so that they will have a dossier to use as they see fit.

Everybody who cares about classics, or about serious study in the humanities more broadly, will want to write and will have their own observations to make. My letter is given below.

Dear Professor Layzell,

Proposals to close the Classics department at RHUL

It was with great dismay that I recently heard of the proposal to close the Classics department at Royal Holloway, moving some staff to other departments, getting rid of others and retaining degree programmes only in Classical Studies and Ancient History from within the History department. In my view, this is a terrible idea, for a number of (related) reasons.

Firstly, reading, teaching and studying the ancient languages is an integral part of what classicists do; while everybody (outside Oxford and Cambridge) is used to the idea that part of our job is to teach students who are reading texts in translation, this does not alter the fact that knowledge of the languages and study of texts in Latin and Greek is central to Classics as a discipline. At present, Royal Holloway is known as an excellent place to study or research classics with languages, and it would be highly destructive to waste this high quality of provision which you have inherited. Thus the discontinuation of the Classics programme and the teaching of texts in the ancient languages would leave Royal Holloway in a position which would be deplorable from the point of view of achieving high standards in the study of the ancient world. The college would be giving away its present high-quality suite of degree programmes and courses for a mediocre alternative, and acting in a way which runs directly counter to the pursuit of academic excellence.

In addition, I would point out that the position of Classics as a relatively small discipline places (or ought to be seen as placing) a special responsibility on the management of universities and colleges where Classics is taught. Where a classics department is closed, that represents serious long term damage to the size and variety of UK Classics to a much greater extent than the closure of a department in a subject which is more widely taught. A small number of decisions by university managers such as yourself can cause enormous damage to a sector which is a vital part of study in the humanities more broadly.

The loss of Classics and withering away of teaching Latin and Greek in the original languages will also cause damage to humanities in Royal Holloway more broadly. Scholars working on modern languages and history and other humanities subjects benefit from the availability of a large pool of classical talent in an institution, and in universities such as Aberdeen or Queen’s Belfast where classics has been lost, the loss is still felt by those who wish to consult or collaborate with experts in Greek and Latin.

You and others in your position in universities across the country are, I am sure, in a difficult position at a time when universities face considerable financial uncertainty. Your role, in my opinion, should be to nurture and protect excellence in all subjects, taking special care to look after less common areas of expertise which you have inherited. The alternative is single-mindedly to pursue only those subjects which the whims of politicians and the market have made to appear “profitable” in the short term, leaving serious commitment to real education as the preserve of a tiny elite at Oxford, Cambridge and a very few other institutions. To act according to the proposals published at Royal Holloway would be to declare to the world that you have chosen the second path.

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3 Responses to Royal Holloway: Classics in trouble

  1. Rhian Wilson says:

    A very powerful letter. And helpful insight into the reasons offered for these proposals, thank you! I sincerely hope an alternative solution can be found. As you rightly said:

    “Where a classics department is closed, that represents serious long term damage to the size and variety of UK Classics to a much greater extent than the closure of a department in a subject which is more widely taught.”

    It’s so difficult for non-Classicists to understand this.

  2. Obert says:

    I think the Principal should be encouraged to consider other means of getting funds to run the institution than dismembering the institution.

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