UK university courses on race and colonialism facing axe due to cuts

<span>Author Bernardine Evaristo has criticised the ‘amputation’ of the Black British literature master’s course at Goldsmiths University.</span><span>Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer</span>
Author Bernardine Evaristo has criticised the ‘amputation’ of the Black British literature master’s course at Goldsmiths University.Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer

Cuts to arts and humanities subjects within higher education will have damaging implications for our understanding of race and colonialism, academics have warned.

Petitions have been launched to save anthropology at Kent University, where the subject has come under threat of closure, while Oxford Brookes confirmed the closure of its music programme earlier this year.

Last month, Booker prize-winner Bernardine Evaristo criticised the “amputation” of the Black British literature master’s course at Goldsmiths University in London, asking them to reconsider scrapping the “pioneering” subject. “The MA in Black British literature shouldn’t be seen as dispensable but as an essential course that is intellectually and culturally enriching for academia, the college and society,” she said.

Last year, the MRes on the history of Africa and the African diaspora at Chichester University was cut and the course leader, Prof Hakim Adi, lost his job. Adi, the first African-British historian to become a professor of history in the UK, was shortlisted for the Wolfson history prize in 2023.

“There’s not very much about race and colonialism on the curriculum to start with, and it sends a signal from those in power that these types of subjects are not desired,” he said. “[Race and colonialism] just won’t be taught in higher education, if this trend continues. Our course [at Chichester] was the only one in Europe that specialises in African history in this way. When I was made redundant, it also impacted the students whose PhDs I was supervising. They were left without an expert on race and colonialism to guide them in this research.”

The government has attempted to crack down on what the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, has described as “rip-off university courses”, which critics have viewed as an attempt to cut arts and humanities degrees.

Recent guidance to the Office for Students issued by Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, places importance on Stem subjects and “higher education studies that enable [students] to progress into employment, thereby benefiting them as well as the wider economy”.

The letter, dated 4 April 2024, makes no mention of funding for arts and humanities subjects – something that scholars from the Defend the Arts campaign, a University and College Union-associated group ­calling to save the arts and humanities in higher education, described as an “attack on critical thought”.

Related: Creative arts courses at English universities face funding cut

University of the Arts London lecturer Kevin Biderman, a leading figure in the Defend the Arts movement, criticised the government’s argument that an arts and humanities education is not employable or beneficial to the economy. Data from January 2024 shows creative industries contribute about £126bn to the UK economy – more than oil and gas.

He added: “At the RCA [Royal College of Art], they got rid of critical and historical studies. What we’re starting to see now is institutions are keeping skills-based courses, under the argument of employability, but they’re cutting courses that require critical thinking about society. [Universities] also cite economic and money-saving reasons – but these courses are cheaper to run in many ways because they don’t need much equipment.””

Adi echoed Biderman: “Getting rid of me also didn’t save [Chichester University] very much money, because I wasn’t getting paid very much.”

Dr Cecilia Wee of the RCA emphasised that less teaching about race in higher education leads to less public awareness. She said: “Arts, culture, and humanities courses are really vital in terms of educating groups of people to make sure that understanding of these topics [such as race, colonialism and feminism] are alive.”

Wee said the “trickle-down impact” of these course closures will, in time, silence voices and narratives that are already underrepresented.

Kent University said its decision to “phase out” anthropology courses followed “an extensive consultation with staff, students and their representatives”.

Goldsmiths said: “We’re proud to have widened scholastic learning with the introduction of the MAs in Black British literature and queer history and are committed to both protecting and enhancing arts and humanities subjects in the best way we can.”

A spokesperson for Chichester University said “despite extensive marketing” of the history of Africa and the African diaspora course, it had “always recruited a relatively small number of students”.

The spokesperson added: “Courses that fail to consistently recruit sufficient students are simply not viable for the university to continue to offer.”

A A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We recognise the immense value of the higher education sector, including arts and humanities courses.”

Adi said that his experience of teaching Black history and race-related studies in the classroom shows that there is a desire for these topics to be taught. He taught a first-year module about Africa and the African diaspora at Chichester University, where his hundreds-strong cohort was mostly white students. “They voted [it] ‘module of the year’,” he said.

“They said they’ve never heard this history before, they’d never heard it at school and that it was fascinating. Young people’s eyes are always open to new perspectives and ideas.

“We’re in the world of educating people to be enlightened citizens in the 21st century – but unfortunately higher education is run as a business.”