University cuts and ‘employability’: A defence of Classics

By Liam Barnes, Features Writer

With A-Levels about to be released and thousands of students heading off to university before fees are trebled, the unfortunate pupils following in their footsteps could be in for more worry than just a bigger loan.

At this time I’m reminded of one of my favourite Latin quotes (I’m sure we all have one): “Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo.” Inspired by the philosopher Epicurus and appearing on numerous epitaphs of Roman graves, it translates as ‘I was not, I was, I am not, I don’t care.”

This is an attitude which sadly prevails among many of my recently-graduated friends, dismissing the protests over £9,000 a year fees with an airiness they once would have given interest rates or pension contributions. However, when discussing higher education, I couldn’t be more opposed to this laissez-faire view, especially when it concerns my old subject.

As the university cuts begin to bite, Royal Holloway University, one of the 1994 Group of research-intensive universities, has recently suggested cutting its Classics and Philosophy department from 11 to five lecturers by 2014, moving those teaching the latter subject into the Politics department while shoehorning the former into a new ‘History and Classics’ department.

No decisions have yet been taken and the consultation process won’t be finished until October at the earliest, but the sword of Damocles hanging over the subject has caused outrage among ex-students, teachers, lecturers and enthusiasts, including Boris Johnson.

The Mayor of London, himself a Classics graduate from Oxford University, said in a statement: “I believe fervently that a training in Classics is one of the best, if not the best, that a young mind can have. It is a universal spanner for so many other languages, but it also gives young people access not just to London’s Roman history, but to an understanding of world history.

“I want London to stay at the forefront of teaching and research in this area and Royal Holloway Classics Department is crucial to this.  I hope the University will listen to the 4,000 strong petition of support for the Department and reconsider the proposed cuts.”

Mary Beard, Classics lecturer at Cambridge and writer of ‘A Don’s Life’, a column for The Times Online comparing ancient and modern life which highlighted Holloway’s plans, including a rumoured cull of all language teaching, said: “I would say that to offer Classics teaching with no language is a way of killing the subject – no student however well they did could go on to research.

“To do Classical Studies with NO languages at all is always a bit second hand (and so easy to cut in due course) – we wouldn’t take a degree in French in translation seriously (that is NOT to say that translations of classical works are not useful, or that it is not worthwhile to think about the ancient world through the modern vernacular, but it is not enough on its own).”

Emma Stafford, CA Hon Sec, and Senior Lecturer in Classics at the University of Leeds, said: “The radical cuts currently under discussion would be detrimental to the national provision of our subject at university level, and the proposal is in any case surprising given that, across the UK as a whole, the level of recruitment to classical subjects is buoyant.

She added: “Most professional Classicists would agree with your suggestion that teaching of the classical languages is essential to the continuing health of the discipline, and there are indeed signs of a revival of interest, especially in Latin, at primary and secondary levels[The Cambridge Classics Project did a 2008 study that found that no fewer than 500 secondary schools had started teaching Latin in the past eight years.], so that cutting off provision at tertiary level seems a very retrograde step, out of touch with likely future demand.”

Anne Sheppard, Head of Classics at Royal Holloway, denied the university was cutting all Latin and Greek teaching, but admitted her department felt the proposed cuts were “too severe.”

 “We’re dealing with a set of proposals, and obviously we’re not very happy and we’re formulating an alternative,” she said. “Some of the information that has gone into the public domain is misleading – they are not proposing to abandon the teaching of Classics.”

She added: “The last thing we want is to put off anyone from applying to us.”

Tim Parkin, Head of Classics and Ancient History at Manchester, said: “People who look at Classics have absolutely no idea what the subject entails – if they just came to a lecture by the Classical Association then can open their eyes.”

“The very encouraging thing about Royal Holloway is that everyone has grouped behind them, even from as far as America.”

“So many Classicists are concerned about the access so people can study it at university,” said Claire Stocks, a Classics lecturer at the University of Manchester. “It’s very much a united front – not just in the UK but in the subject as a whole worldwide.”

She added: “We’re used to having to defend ourselves, which is good as it shows we have a sense of community in the subject.”

Paul Layzell, software engineer and Principal of Royal Holloway, initially tried to limit the public nature of the debate, but later released a statement responding to speculation.

It said: “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.”

Citing cost issues, Mr Layzell continued: “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.”

Charlie Ball, deputy director of research at Higher Education Careers Services Unit (HECSU), said: “Universities are making decisions to rationalise as a result of cuts to funding. Royal Holloway won’t be the last to close a department, and I’m sure Royal Holloway haven’t taken this decision lightly. I fear there are very few options on the table.”

When other universities closed departments, such as when Exeter cancelled Music, Italian and Chemistry, a key science degree much-vaunted by employers, in 2004 (ironically whilst increasing funding for Classics and Ancient History), Mr Ball said the data was unclear on how this affects the academic reputation, performance and morale at the remaining institution.

“One thing that was the case was that it brought a great deal of negative PR,” he said. “[But] People will still be keen to go to university and Royal Holloway is still a good uni.”

Over 2,700 people have signed a petition to fight the planned closures, more than 3,700 have joined the related Facebook group and support has come from figures such as Private Eye editor Ian Hislop and author Tom Holland.

The backlash has even gone global, as the American Philological Society have written to decry the threatened cuts. In a rare act of solidarity with many of his fellow academics, Salford-born Marxist historian Terry Eagleton summed up the overall feeling best, saying: “You can call an institution without Classics a bank, a casino or a kindergarten, but you sure can’t call it a university.”

However, some may feel that Classicists and other academics would only naturally oppose such proposals. And, as a graduate of  the subject (Classics and Ancient History, Manchester University, 2009, if you wondered) and a signature on the petition, I’m obviously going to be worried by any threat to the subject that may come from Holloway’s proposals and likely to highlight it.

So what does it mean to non-Classicists, schools and – especially pertinent in the current economic climate – employers?

A 2006 Council for Industry and Higher Education (CIHE) report, ‘Degrees of Skill: Student Employability Profiles’, further muddies the waters. It makes great store of Classics and Ancient History’s “particularly important contribution to make in a multicultural society and it has done much to shape our conceptions of what an educational system should be”, adding that “particularly important contribution to make in a multicultural society and it has done much to shape our conceptions of what an educational system should be.”

It lists several key qualitative and quantitative skills learnt, such as “extract key elements from data and identify and solve associated problems” and “understand a range of viewpoints and critical approaches”, but it doesn’t offer any real insight into what employers especially consider ‘employable’ skills and subjects.

The report is filled with jargon and mealy-mouthed business-speak, as if it was carefully balanced so as not to offend any subject unduly, and more word-of-mouth testaments from employers and academics are needed.

Even so, in a paper that praises at any opportunity in order to keep the peace between rival disciplines, this final paragraph stands out as high backing, and if it’s good enough for Civil Service Fast Stream, one the most respected, rigorous and ruthless recruiters of graduates, then why is it being targeted for cuts?

One curious paragraph in the report states that:

“Our own knowledge of the present day undergraduate’s learning experience is likely to be incomplete, given the significant developments in learning and teaching styles and methodologies in all subjects in recent years.

It is understandable if, partly through everyday work pressures, a recruiter consciously or unconsciously allows stereotypes of particular backgrounds to overly influence selection.”

There does seem to be a bias against the subject in this country, as a 2010 survey by the CBI suggests, and Labour politicians such as Andy Burnham and Paul Flynn were critical of Michael Gove’s drive for “presiding over the greatest renaissance in Latin learning since Julius Caesar invaded.”

Indeed, under the Labour government Charles Clarke, Jim (now Lord) Knight and Ed Balls were almost ideologically opposed to Latin, seemingly linking it to toffs, private schools and entrenched privilege (an image not helped by strong support from prominent Tories), supporting an attempt by exam board OCR to cancel Ancient History A-Level, before a petition and a protest led by toga-wearing Boris Johnson caused a U-turn. But is this mass hostility justified?

One allegation Classicists are quick to rebut is the suggestion that the subject is esoteric, elitist and hence ripe for cutting in the tough economic situation higher education faces; the counter argument runs that it is broad, widely popular and benefits from the passion of its students, with programmes such as the award-winning Horrible Histories helping to foster a renaissance in public interest.

“The main reason many study it is because they liked the breadth of the subject,” said Doctor Stocks. “People who go to see Troy and other films [e.g. Gladiator, 300, Centurion] are interested in the subject, so there’s a clear market for this product, if you were to be so crude.”

“The point about loving the subject is relevant, because if you love it you do better in it,” said Professor Parkin. “Classics gets very high scores on the Student Satisfaction Survey because students are enjoying it and doing well at it.”

Doctor Stocks also strongly refuted arguments put forward by some politicians. She said: “By having a non-vocational subject you’re actually expanding your options, not limiting them,” she said. “Classics is a terrific degree that is so broad, it gives you a good grounding in several different areas and increases your skill-set.”

Ms Sheppard staunchly defended the skills of her students, saying: “They have a whole range of skills that you get from studying different cultures in different ways. I don’t think there’s an issue with employability. One of my colleagues has been quite involved in setting up work placements for students with the careers service.”

Mr Ball said: “It’s a perfectly good subject as far as employers are concerned, but the best subjects have been those that mix quantitative and qualitative material.”

Considering that it does have a mix of both qualitative (e.g. using and analysing ancient and modern sources to glean psychological reasoning behind decisions) and quantitative (e.g. dealing with numbers, statistics, dates, etc.) material, could this be a case of employers not understanding what the subject involves?

Several scions of the business world have classical backgrounds, such as Margaret Mountford, who abandoned The Apprentice to return to her love of studying papyri, and in many Asian companies Sun Tzu’s 5th-century BC manual is compulsory reading, so highly prized are its teachings – so why do so many employers take such a narrow view of such a wide-ranging subject?

“Employers do have preconceptions. The best prepared ones will have more or an idea of what’s involved,” said Mr Ball. “The employability profiles are an excellent resource, but it’s more about getting students and employers speaking the same language – there’s a big job for organisations like ours to help this, giving advice and guidance as it’s vital to bridge these gaps.”

Such efforts are already being undertaken at Manchester.

“We did a Roman Law unit with the Law department, and several of the students have gone on to be lawyers – it’s a great mix,” said Professor Parkin.

Doctor Stocks concurred, adding: “One of the things I like about it at Manchester is that it doesn’t take five years to get a new module through a committee, and we offer new things.”

The employment statistics released by the Higher Education Statistical Authority (HESA) also fail to clear up the confusion.

Subjects with more assumed unemployed include Engineering (11%), Media Studies (15%) and, perhaps surprisingly, Computer Science (15%), with the worst unemployment rates for Forestry (20%) and Japanese Studies (24%).

However, Classics does have some the highest percentages of students who say on to do further studies, which perhaps skews the scores in their favour. At 54%, Classical Studies has one of the lowest percentages of graduates in employment, but still more than the more trendy law (53%) or STEM subjects like Chemistry (50%) and Physics (46%).

“The issue for computer science and engineering is slightly different,” said Mr Ball. “The simple evidence suggests we may have an oversupply of graduates, but they also seem to be prepared to wait and not take ‘in-between jobs’, and they were more affected by the dot-com crash [in 2001], and since then prospects for IT graduates haven’t been as good.”

“Engineering has been hit very hard by the recession and the cancellation of many [public] building contracts.”

Nevertheless, these figures, following the groupings formulated by the Joint Academic Coding System (JACS), exclude joint honours or combined studies programmes, and ancient history, rather than being included under a more typical Classics and Ancient History banner, is muddled in with ‘History by Period’.

In other words, the subject is split uneasily over various different groupings, making statistics hard to find and, resultantly, easy to abuse. The dissonance between the practical divisions of subjects in university departments and the collation by statistical authorities only aids the lack of understanding of subjects such as Classics, leading to stereotyping, ignorance and in some cases unfair unemployment.

Such loose classifications under the JACS make it difficult to disentangle the data for statistical analysis, leading to a danger of overlapping information, miscalculation and thus a scenario where they can be abused for the own political and ideological ends of Vice-Chancellors, politicians and others. In other words, a subject can be made to look unprofitable to close it and advance the cause of another.

As a graduate of Classics and Ancient History, I obviously have a desire to see the subject thrive and be successful, but this isn’t for sentimental, self-interested reasons. I went to a regular state school almost allergic to the idea of Ancient History, let alone Latin or Greek, and by the end of A-Levels I was totally demoralised with the education system, finding the courses too facile, the curriculum strangled by tick-box marking and a pervasive, pernicious culture churning out enough passes to reach targets.

Doing a vibrant, varied and intellectually demanding course was a brilliant relief, a wonderful mix of history, literature and language, teaching me more about research skills, source interpretation and how to write – in other words, the core skills to be a journalist – than most vocational courses ever could.

Indeed, vocational courses and modern degrees  such as Management or Media Studies, less respected academically and professionally, may have more students, but are more expensive to teach and arguably produce less rewards for student, university and  employer, and hence would be a much better target for ‘efficiency savings’.

However, such is the hold of the ideology of ‘market forces’ and consumerism in higher education – as if the economic sophists and sages would show the way forward! – that the ivory towers, with a bit of blue-sky thinking, will remain in Cloud Cuckoo-Land.

To me, it would seem that, rather than sticking to their motto, esse quam videri – ‘to be, rather than to seem’ – Classics at Royal Holloway could soon have a more Machiavellian meaning, existing to seem, rather than to be.

Holloway may indeed continue language teaching, but this relief after early fears may prove to be no more than a Pyrrhic victory for the subject, and the die may be cast for other Vice-Chancellors with axes to grind and cuts to make to follow Paul Layzell’s lead, or even go further.

For those who have benefited from such an education and will carry this throughout our lives, benefitting professionally and personally, this is an ominous sign.

At this (wine) dark time I’m reminded of another of my favourite Latin quotes. In the words of Cicero: O tempora! O mores!


More related stories:

Degree or not degree? MM’s guide to the alternatives to university on A-level results day

A Level students: Don’t panic about clearing ahead of Thursday’s results

Related Articles