The University of Sheffield, a public university in South Yorkshire, England, has decided to shut down their internationally renowned archaeology department. The executive board at the University first proposed the closure in late May.
Despite protests from students, faculty, staff, and cultural institutions, the University Council decided to go forward with the plan put forward by the executive board to close the department down. The University alerted faculty to this decision in a 13 minute presentation in which faculty were not able to respond as their microphones and cameras had been disabled by the meeting hosts.
The archaeology program at Sheffield is highly respected and is ranked 13th best in the world. The department heads numerous projects in Sheffield, Stonehenge, and other sites in Britain as well as international digs. Yet, the University executive board claimed the program was obsolete, citing that only 10 undergraduate students had committed to taking archaeology courses in the coming academic year.
Umberto Albarella, professor of zooarchaeology at the University of Sheffield, says that this statistic is misleading. These ten students applied to study archaeology despite being warned that the program might not even exist. Albarella told ARTnews in a video call, “I’m amazed that we still have 10 students who have accepted offers. What would you do if you were an undergraduate student thinking of studying archaeology and you have received notification from the University that clearly says that they can’t guarantee who is going to teach them and which department they’re going to be taught?”
Currently, the University’s plan is to teach archaeology courses in other departments and at the postgraduate level, while doing away with parts of the curriculum and some of the faculty that teach them. However, the University board has not yet decided which aspects of the department they will get rid of.
The closure is the final blow in a series of disinvestments from the program, with faculty members being reduced drastically over the years as tuition rates have continued to skyrocket. This is a pattern that has been happening all over the country. The Guardian reported this past June that tuition for U.K. universities has increased by a third over the past five years, while spending on faculty has grown much more slowly. In fact, Covid-19 led to a wave of layoffs.
The programs most targeted have been those in the liberal arts, with the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson dismissing these disciplines as “dead-end courses that leave young people with nothing but debt” in a statement he made last month describing his “Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill” that is intended to strengthen funding for vocational training, disinvest from the liberal arts and ultimately, “put an end once and for all to the chilling effect of cancel culture in universities. ” The suggestion that the liberal arts are not just useless for those seeking employment but harmful to the larger culture echoes conservative efforts in the United States to ban Critical Race Theory from school curriculums.
Faculty will continue to fight the decision to close the archaeology department, and the University union is set to vote on whether or not faculty would like to strike during the coming fall term. Albarella says he and his fellow professors believe it is their responsibility to do all they can to resist the cultural vandalism that is sweeping through the country and their school, saying, “Whatever happens to our department, our jobs, we wouldn’t be fulfilling our duties as citizens if we allow something as wrong as this to happen without any formal resistance.”