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Joint Statement from the Institute of English Studies, the English Association and University English on threatened job losses at Birkbeck

2nd November 2022

Dear Professor David Latchman, Professor Matt Innes, Sir Andrew Cahn,

We write on behalf of the English Association, the Institute for English Studies and University English, the three major subject bodies in the UK representing the study of English language, literature and linguistics, to express our dismay at the news of the devastating cuts proposed for The Department of English, Theatre & Creative Writing at Birkbeck. Whilst we recognise that such a decision will not have been lightly made, to make 50% of English Literature staff in your hugely successful, world-leading department redundant is astonishing, particularly given the department’s much merited and celebrated success in the Research Excellence Framework 2021 (1st in London; 2nd in the UK). The proposed cuts will be devastating not just for individuals, both professional service and academic colleagues, but also for the long-term reputation of the College, and for the provision of arts and humanities education in London. We are asking you to pause and rethink, to work with your department, and your board of governors to defend not just English Literature but all arts and humanities subjects, before the damage becomes irreversible.

Birkbeck faces challenges common to other universities with declining numbers in English Literature. There are multiple factors behind this, and major steps are being taken by organisations such as ours to reverse the decline. But English Literature remains a core humanities discipline, and it is crucial to the future of the UK economy: after all, of the ten ‘top skills for 2025’ listed in the World Economic Forum’s ‘Future of Jobs Report’ 2020, eight derive from the arts, humanities and social sciences disciplines. The commitment of our subject to contemporary challenges, to outreach, to social justice, to climate change, to economic and cultural impact could and should be at the heart of your university vision. Arts and humanities subjects are integral to your future success as a university with a vision for it provision in the 21st century.

We urge you to rethink your decision and strategy. We need our university leaders to step up to honour the contributions made every year to the UK economy by humanities graduates, and to recognise the long-term consequences of the decline of these subject areas in social and economic terms. As a recent British Academy report put it, ‘arts and humanities students are the “ideal entrepreneurs” of the future, digitally literate, ready to thrive in a globally diverse world, resilient, confident at analysis and team working, independently minded’ (British Academy’s Right Skills). Given its mission, Birkbeck is ideally placed to lead on this.

It is extremely unfortunate that this is happening as you prepare to celebrate your 200th anniversary. Birkbeck’s world-leading centre for the study of literature and culture is much-loved by its many distinguished alumni and colleagues across the UK, as social media has shown only too clearly, and this is what we should be celebrating. Given the current demographic upswing, and the growing number of commuter students in London, Birkbeck has much to contribute in the future. We ask you to work with academic colleagues to address the challenges faced by arts and humanities disciplines, and to lead on promoting these disciplines that are so crucial to the health and wellbeing of our society,

Yours sincerely

Professor Jennifer Richards, Director of Newcastle University Humanities Research Institute, Chair of the English Association’s Higher Education Committee

Professor Clare Lees, Director of The Institute for English Studies, Vice Dean The School of Advanced Study, London

Professor Gail Marshall, Head of School, Literature and Languages, University of Reading, Chair of University English