Humanities face 'serious finacial pressure'

19 October 2008

The School of Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) is facing “serious financial pressure,” the university’s financial watchdog has concluded.

In its annual report, published during the Long Vacation, the Board of Scrutiny concluded that “while science funding is broadly satisfactory… the School of the Humanities and Social Sciences, in particular, remains under serious financial pressure.”

This “serious financial pressure” has yet to be acknowledged by the acting Finance Manager of HSS, Peter Oldfield, who admits that he does not even know what the report is.

“I’m not sure what the Board of Scrutiny report is, to be honest,” he told The Cambridge Student. “I only started working here about three weeks ago.”

But, he said, “I don’t recognise the pressure on this School as being particularly dire.”

A different assessment was offered by HSS Chairman, Professor John Bell, who admits not only that his School is facing considerable funding problems, but that these problems have existed for some time. He says that HSS is struggling in comparison to other Schools, particularly those of the sciences. Funding issues will be discussed at a meeting of the School this Friday, Prof. Bell confirmed, although he also stressed that this is an ongoing problem for the School rather than a moment of sudden crisis.

Speaking to TCS, Prof. Bell said: “Crisis is probably putting it too strongly – this is a problem we’ve had for the last five years, even if the Board of Scrutiny has only just woken up to it.”

“The government has been throwing money at teaching science subjects because it sees them as endangered,” he continued. “HSS don’t get the same amount of research income from the government. The amount paid per student is lower than for the sciences.”

Prof. Bell identified “the large number of libraries, as well as the teaching staff” as the primary costs the School had to contend with. One way out of financial difficulty might be through the consolidation of library resources, he suggested.

“Making the most of the library resources we’ve got is the most sensible way forward,” he said. In light of the library centralisation plans, recently proposed by the General Board and reported in last week’s TCS, this may well be an option taken up by the university.

The Master of Darwin College, Professor William Brown, who is also a member of the university’s governing council, agreed with Prof. Bell’s assessment. “I don’t think it’s a major crisis, but I do think it’s cause for concern,” Prof. Brown told TCS. “I was glad the Board of Scrutiny picked up on it – the university tends to respond when people scream for resources.”

“The sciences are doing very well in Cambridge and they’re bringing in the research money. There’s less scope for that in the humanities,” he said, explaining why HSS is more dependent on funding from the university’s central ‘chest’ than some other Schools.

When questioned about library amalgamation as a potential solution to the funding problem, Prof. Brown said: “I think that’s the way things are going, but there’s no thought of having just one large HSS library.”

“Having the government constrain both the money they can give us and the fees we can charge students puts us under great pressure,” he concluded.

In connection with the funding pressures on HSS, the Board of Scrutiny’s report noted that other members of the university’s governing council had expressed “concerns” about “departmental versus ‘inessential’ central funding.”

In a discussion before Senate House back in June, council member Bob Dowling suggested that one solution to budgetary problems might be to remove completely any “underused” centrally-provided services, rather than cutting small amounts from budgetary allocations across the board.

“The University knows money is going to be tight. It has responded to that by tightening all the screws just a little bit. And next year it will be a little bit more, and then more and then more. In consequence, we risk all our ships sinking for their respective ha’p’orths of tar,” said Dowling.

He continued: “What is miss­ing from this report is any sense of targeted saving.”

“Do we need an underused ‘University Centre’ by the river? How much would be saved by losing it? A million pounds per year? That’s two or three per cent on the budget for the School of Arts and Humanities. Pretty soon we’re talking serious money,” he concluded.

Professor Ross Anderson, also a council member, made a similar point, identifying catering as one centrally-provided service from which cuts might be made. In a statement read by Mr Dowling be­fore Senate House on the same oc­casion in June, he said: “I fail to see why we should have doubled our catering subsidy from £1 mil­lion a year to £2 million. Oxford does not have a central catering service at all, so we could surely do without one.”

“Meanwhile,” Prof. Anderson went on, “academic departments suffer. In the Arts and Humani­ties, department heads complain of cuts…and in Computer Science we no longer have online access to the most important series of conference proceedings in our field.”

“Our budgeting process is bro­ken. It just does not make the right decisions at the margin,” he concluded.

The Board of Scrutiny also voiced fears that the worsening financial situation could leave the university struggling to make ends meet, not just in the hu­manities and social sciences, but across the board.

“Although the university’s fi­nancial position has been greatly improved…there is still a funda­mental lack of flexibility within the system and an inadequate cushion against the unexpected event or an economic downturn,” the report concluded.