Words by Ewan Vellinga

The University of Leicester has received significant backlash around a proposal that could include staff being made redundant and certain modules being discontinued. 

Proposed changes would put 145 posts at risk of redundancy, and specific modules in English language, linguistics and medieval literature being dropped from the curriculum.  

This was “informed by a drop in demand from undergraduate and postgraduate students” for these modules. 

“Our curriculum is very broad, and we cannot continue to offer modules that consistently attract small and ever-declining numbers, especially given the pressures across the higher education sector.”

The proposal has received significant criticism from staff and students. 

The University and College Union (UCU) said the proposed redundancies were “cruel and divisive,” especially given continued uncertainty caused by Covid-19. 

They also cited a recent freedom of information request, which shows that the University of Leicester already made 162 redundancies between March and September 2020, part of a similar trend across various UK universities.  

The UCU further said the discontinuation of specific modules would damage the university’s international reputation, and the quality of teaching, research and student experience. 

Members voted in support of a no-confidence motion in the vice-chancellor on 25 January, and passed a motion for sustained industrial action. 

Controversy has also arisen over the reasoning behind the proposal to end certain English modules. 

Although the university has reiterated the lack of interest from students, some staff and students feel there was an implication these modules were being discontinued in an attempt to create a more “decolonised curriculum.”  

In an article covering the controversy, the BBC quotes the university as saying that  restructuring the course would involve reconsidering how “it could be more inclusive and reflect emerging developments” in a bid to decolonise the curriculum.  

A university spokeswoman said “for example, many reading lists are dominated by white authors.” “This ignores many great BAME scholars and also means that BAME students do not see themselves reflected in what they are being taught.”

This could involve new modules being offered as replacements, covering topics including race, sexuality, ethnicity and diversity. 

An open letter was sent to the university, signed by academics both at Leicester and other institutions, on 25 January. It urged a reconsideration of the proposals, arguing that cutting staff and modules would damage the university’s reputation and quality. 

The BBC reports that Professor Catharine Clarke, an examiner for the English Studies MA, has resigned, and Professor Isobel Armstrong, a fellow of the British Academy, returned her honorary doctorate, both in protest at the proposals. 

Armstrong argued in a letter addressed to the vice-chancellor that the proposal to discontinue modules had “no sound pedagogical basis” and that the university’s reasoning “was either a cynical exploitation of the language of ‘decolonisation’, or genuine (and appalling) ignorance of the work medieval and early modern subjects can contribute to this endeavour.” 

Dr David Clark, an associate professor in the English department, similarly criticised the proposal by saying he was “bemused by the implication none of us already teaches/writes about…decolonising the curriculum.”  

The BBC also quotes Rhiannon Jenkins, student course representative for final-year English, who said “the student body does want decolonisation”, but “we think (the university has) used this rhetoric of decolonisation to suggest that the English department haven’t done any work towards it, and suggest that medievalism and early modern literature has no place for decolonisation in it.”

Jenkins also claims the university has not allowed the English department to poll first-year undergraduate students on which modules they were interested in. 

The BBC notes that a university spokesperson said “this is not the case – the university’s module selection process for next year’s English course has not yet commenced.” 

The university has adamantly denied the implication these modules are being discontinued in an attempt to decolonise the curriculum, saying “there have been a number of erroneous assertions in the media regarding the proposed changes.” 

“Any assertion that authors, such as Chaucer, will be ‘banned’ from the English literature curriculum have no basis, nor do any stories suggesting these are linked to a programme to decolonise the curriculum.” 

“Under our proposals for English, we will continue to offer a wide chronological range, covering hundreds of years of English literature – enabling students to experience the scope of literature they tell us they want to see in an English curriculum today.”

“We understand this is a challenging time for our community, but any decisions made will ultimately be taken with the long-term interest of the University at heart.”

The university has reiterated that these are only proposals, and they are currently in a 90-day consultation with staff, students and external stakeholders. As such, whether the proposals will go ahead is as yet still unclear. 

Picture Credit: Mat Fascione

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