The Goldsmiths crisis: how cuts and culture wars sent universities into a death spiral

<span>Goldsmiths, University of London, in New Cross.</span><span>Photograph: davidxgreen/Alamy</span>
Goldsmiths, University of London, in New Cross.Photograph: davidxgreen/Alamy

It is a couple of days before Easter, and the students who have been holding a sit-in in the Professor Stuart Hall building in Goldsmiths, University of London are packing up. The large basement smells of duvets and camping mats and solidarity and liveliness, and deodorant sprayed on in a hurry under a T-shirt, and it smells like a place where people have slept, which 20 of them have done since 20 February, with crowds swelling to 100 for spontaneous lectures.

This isn’t a story about idiot idealists making futile gestures: Mark Peacock, a 28-year-old postgraduate student in the politics department, rattles through a number of concessions the senior management team at the university has made as a result of the action. Yet Danna MacRae, 24, studying for an MA in ecology, culture and society, says the occupation has been greater than the sum of its demands: “It’s about opening up the literal physical space but also the social space to expand political possibilities. So much becomes possible when you’re living together 24/7.” I read their banner as they’re furling it up: among other things, it calls for the university to protect students’ right to protest, expand scholarships for Palestinian students and divest from any company providing equipment to Israel.

These are by no means extraordinary calls, particularly among students – many universities have coordinated protests and motions on Palestine. Besides, calling for an end to the bombardment and starvation of Gaza becomes a more mainstream position the longer it goes on. But I’m really surprised, because there’s a whole separate, hot dispute going on at Goldsmiths, and I’d assumed the students were protesting as part of that. The media are really bad at examining two issues at once, particularly if they’re on different scales and not obviously connected – more than one academic from the media and communications department explained this to me.

Midway through the occupation, the warden of Goldsmiths, Frances Corner, had announced the so-called Transformation Programme, which would require 132 members of staff – or the full-time equivalent, so it was expected to affect more than that number of people – to be made compulsorily redundant. It would mean losing 17% of the staff, with some departments – English and sociology, arguably their most famous, along with art and politics – taking hits of 50%.

It is no exaggeration to say that staff are devastated, gobsmacked. They had a hunch that something was about to happen but say that for days ahead of the announcement, Goldsmiths’ council, its governance body, wouldn’t meet them, putting them off until the day after it had approved the redundancies, the day academics got the letters. “They agreed, but we said: ‘We cannot meet you now because half of us are having a panic attack,’” says history of art lecturer Yaiza Hernández Velázquez.

Many are at pains to admit that they know “the glory days of the 80s are no longer with us” (in the words of an academic from the English department, who asked to remain anonymous because they are at risk of redundancy). Many understand very well the financial pressures Goldsmiths is under, although they point out that they’ve already made many concessions to save money. “Voluntary redundancy schemes, vacancy rates and cutting down associate lecturer budgets and research budgets: with that, Goldsmiths had already recouped £10.1m. We didn’t really oppose any of that, because it was acknowledged there was a need,” Hernández Velázquez says.

But to make cuts like this, which are planned for this September, will surely change the face of the university, diminishing the educational offer that many students – certainly many undergraduates – signed up for, and curtailing much of the activity for which Goldsmiths is famous.

Apart from the fact Blur met there, Goldsmiths is known for a few things. It’s quite an anarchic, radical place. English students go there for the decolonisation, and students of sociology and art go there for the ecology course. Des Freedman, professor of media and communications (not at risk from the redundancy plans), summarises it more broadly as: “It specialises in the creative and the critical, so you would expect more musicians, more artists, more film-makers, more designers than in less specialist institutions, all of those with a critical perspective.” It has punched above its weight – being a small university of about 8,600 students, with a turnover of £135m versus a university average of £250m – both in terms of reputation and international pull. Since about a third of its students are international, more as postgraduates than undergrads, and since, as is well known, the fees foreign students pay go so very far towards keeping any tertiary education institution afloat, to strip out the unique elements that bring them here seems, in the first place, bizarre.

Corner is adamant: “Our financial position is really serious. We absolutely know what we’ve got to do. [These redundancies] sound like a lot, but part of the problem is that over the last five years we’ve lost a thousand students. In terms of the amount of money our staff bring in, only the London School of Tropical Medicine is lower than us. The number of students per member of staff is very low, and it’s not sustainable.”

Without question, some of this situation is unique to Goldsmiths and the decisions of Corner and her senior management team. The administrative staff were streamlined in the so-called recovery plan into one central hub in 2021-22, again to save money, and there has been chaos ever since. The details are quite funny, like watching W1A, but only if you are doing so from a gigantic distance. One of the reasons for the decline in international student recruitment was that “the letters went out too late”, says Hernández Velázquez. “The prospective students couldn’t get their visas. They can’t deny that, but what has been very frustrating is that they have never explained how many letters didn’t get sent. We were never told what the shortfall was. We were just told that people don’t want to come here any more.”

That is thought to have cost hundreds of international applications, though Corner rejects that, blaming “problems within departments”, along with spurious applications and a tightening of Home Office regulations, particularly recently around dependency visas for postgrads. That anti-immigrant sabre-rattling by the government has fallen harder on some universities than others. Chinese postgrads, for example, tend not to bring dependants, while Nigerians on average bring two and a half.

Enter the performative xenophobia of the new Conservative. Foreign students used to be an export success story

Yet in many ways, what’s happening at Goldsmiths is a vivid thumbnail sketch of the crises, both accidental and deliberately manufactured, hitting the entire sector, bar a very few stunningly well-funded universities from the high-profile Russell Group.

Specific to the so-called “classroom” subjects of the humanities – English, history, sociology – the financial model is falling apart. Would it amaze you to hear that the Tories and Lib Dems of 2010 did not think this through? When tuition fees were first hiked to nine grand a year by the coalition government, Andrew McGettigan, author of the Great University Gamble and expert in university funding and finance, says: “Suddenly classroom subjects were getting a lot more than the cost of delivering teaching, so you could fund research time in your department out of the money you were getting from your students.” You could also cross-subsidise more expensive subjects.

This led to what he calls “a great sucking sound” as larger, more prestigious institutions pulled in humanities students because they were very lucrative. This became even more pronounced when George Osborne abolished the cap on student numbers in the 2013 autumn budget. This led to a slow death spiral for smaller universities; their prestige came from being research universities, rather than just teaching universities, but they were having to drop their grade requirements to keep their numbers up. Prestige takes quite a long time to drain away, though (longer to rebuild, of course), so the situation bobbed along for a bit with a lot of research staff in the humanities who were basically paid for by undergraduates they didn’t teach.

But there was a much bigger problem coming: as tuition fees have stagnated, going up only by £250 in 14 years, even classroom subjects are now costing more than they bring in. So the only possible cross-subsidy is from foreign students, whose fees are unregulated and have no ceiling – some undergraduate courses at Oxford are £48,000 a year for overseas students. Oxbridge has more money than it knows what to do with, while smaller institutions just get by. But now enter – let’s call it, for brevity – the performative xenophobia of the new Conservative. Foreign students, considered until so recently an export success story (not just their fees but every meal deal they bought counted as a plus on the UK’s balance of payments), are now a number that Tory ministers vie with one another to reduce.

So when Corner blames the government (in tactful, passive terms: “That’s why arts and humanities have been undermined”), that is fair. When academics and students say they suspect her of trying to turn Goldsmiths into a “management and business teaching university”, as Peacock describes it, supplying technical and vocational education to students who pay through the nose and definitely don’t occupy lecture theatres, she would deny that in general terms: “I would say that that thing that makes Goldsmiths really special is the combination of humanities and social sciences.” But her core argument is that the sector is underfunded and the funding model is bust anyway, and she’s not wrong.

Arts, humanities and social sciences are seen as easy targets by tabloids, by GB News. But this is a huge asset to the economy

Prof Des Freedman

More sinister is the sense that Freedman describes: “It’s hard not to think that a culture war is being evoked against you simply for trying to think independently and critically.” Science minister Michelle Donelan’s recent shameful attack on two academics, reporting them to UKRI (the national research-funding body) for extremism and blighting their lives over an accusation that was wholly without foundation, springs to mind – but then so does almost everything Donelan and education secretary Gillian Keegan say about the sector in general, and humanities in particular. All those references to “woke ideology”, “intolerant woke bullies” and “cancel culture” are increasingly accompanied by defunding of the humanities, using increased accessibility to education as a fig leaf, as Keegan announced last week.

“Your subjects are mocked and called low value,” Freedman says. “Arts, humanities and social sciences haven’t played the instrumentalist game, so they’re seen as easy targets by tabloids, by GB News. We would laugh it off, but this is a huge asset to the British economy.” More importantly, he continues, “it’s not just a tragedy – it’s almost like a crime to shrink those spaces that provide a home for the inquisitive, the experimental. If the space disappears, it’s very hard to recreate it.”

McGettigan perceives expedience here: universities are very independent, institutionally, and that’s a problem when the market starts to fail (and it is failing: a truly tragic sidebar is that it’s not working out for students either, and some universities are hitting 30% dropout rates after the first year. Maintenance grants haven’t kept pace with inflation, and students just can’t afford to stay). “Culture wars do distract from market failure,” he says, “and leave the impression that the market failure was a result of misplaced priorities.”

All that would definitely be bad – cynical, self-sabotaging, philistine. But there’s another possibility that is worse: that culture wars aren’t being fought to destroy the humanities – rather that humanities are being destroyed because they’re incredibly inconvenient to authoritarianism, representing as they do “a pedagogical practice that calls students beyond themselves, embraces the ethical imperative for them to care for others, embrace historical memory, work to dismantle structures of domination, and to become subjects rather than objects of history, politics, and power”.

That’s from Critical Pedagogy in the Age of Fascist Politics by the American academic Henry Giroux, and I mention it not to freak anyone out, merely to note how striking the similarities are between rhetorical and financial attacks on the arts and humanities in the US and in the UK. You can read about the crisis in the creative writing degree at the University of Florida and swap out only one or two words (“semester”, plus the name of the president) and you could be reading about Goldsmiths.

Related: ‘Cultural and social vandalism’: job cut plans at Goldsmiths attacked

In fact, the students protesting about Gaza at Goldsmiths are also passionately opposed to the mass redundancies, and many of the staff were involved, non-residentially, with the occupation – teach-ins, coming to guest lectures, supportive vibes. But there’s a deeper connective logic, common to student protest throughout history. MacRae, when the occupation began, was working on a soundscape about the Tiananmen Square massacre, where her father had witnessed the occupation of the square and subsequent shootings of students and civilians. “Did they get what they wanted?” she says. “Of course not. But for a few months, the whole city was in a state of anarchy in a beautiful way, and people still remember that feeling.”

When you embark on an education that cannot obviously be commodified, that doesn’t translate into earnings, it is a way of saying (and believing) that your mind’s value to society is innate. Politics is your business because you are its business. You are the keeper of ideas, historical memory, compassion, context, hope, that the market cannot understand and authoritarianism cannot stomach.

Back in February, one (anonymous) academic was in a meeting at which some of the senior management team wanted to get the students arrested. “Can you imagine?” they said. “Calling the police on your own students? At Goldsmiths?” That was outvoted, but the ludicrousness hangs in the air.

Can you imagine? Trying to hollow out the arts and humanities? In the UK, where it’s one of the few things we’re good at? (No offence, scientists: you’re good too.) You don’t have to imagine it – you can see it. But I don’t think it’s a done deal.