Worldwide concern for job losses as University of Sheffield announces potential closure of ‘world class’ archaeology department

“Shocked and disgusted” – students and staff alike are ‘deeply concerned’ about the news that the University of Sheffield could make the decision close one of the world’s top archaeology departments next Tuesday, May 25.

Friday, 21st May 2021, 9:13 am
The University of Sheffield Arts Tower. Picture: Chris Etchells
The University of Sheffield Arts Tower. Picture: Chris Etchells

It has been announced today that the Department of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield is under an institutional review, meaning it could be closed for good if the university makes that decision next Tuesday, May 25.

The university has announced three potential outcomes after Tuesday: investment in the department with new posts and the development of new programmes, to close the department - but to honour commitments to existing students, or to retain archaeology as a discipline but not as a department – two current masters programmes only.

The amount of teaching staff in the department has already been reduced to 11 from 29, and the closure could put all jobs at risk.

Professor Umberto Albarella, who has been with the university since 2004, said: “Concerned is an understatement. We are concerned on many levels, concerned for our jobs and livelihoods and salaries, but even more importantly we are concerned that all the work that has been done for decades is going to be destroyed by this decision taken by managers that don’t really understand much of what we do.

"I call this a catastrophic failure of management.”

This is not the first department to have been thrown into job uncertainty at the university, and there are ‘wider threats to jobs in the arts and humanities’.

Jess Meacham, communications officer for Sheffield UCU, the trade union representing academic management at the university, said they are also ‘deeply concerned’ about the news: "We have got a lot of concerns about the potential closure of the archaeology department.

"We are worried about potential job losses, and deeply concerned about the potential closure of a department like archaeology.

"It has contributed majorly to the field, there’s a lot of incredible work that happens there. And we are also seeing it in the context of wider threats to jobs in the arts and humanities at Sheffield: some of the staff in our languages school are also at risk of redundancy due to proposed changes as well, so we are feeling very strongly about this at the moment.”

As well as asking individuals to voice their opposition to the proposed closure of the department, the UCU are writing to the university and meeting with Olivia Blake and Paul Blomfield MP early next week about the potential closure.

Now a petition to save the department has also been set up by third year archaeology student Liam Hand, and has gained over 2,500 signatures – garnering support from some of the world’s top archaeologists and universities.

Liam, 26, said: “Pre-Covid they had 14 members of staff retire and they asked for money to replace those staff, which was approved, but as we have come out of the Covid crisis they have reacted to what they had previously said and put the department under review instead due to a lack of research output despite not being able to get into labs, and being severely short-staffed.

“Any current students on their course would be honoured, until the current first years graduate, so fully closed in three years. But they wont get the same education because the staff will be trying to find other jobs.”

Liam and fellow students met with a senior member of university staff to offer overwhelmingly positive support for the department, but says they did not listen, and now believes the the university ‘seized an opportunity’ to close the ‘world-renowned’ department, rather than closing from actual necessity.

“It is very clear they have not listened,” he said. “They’ve had the meetings with students because they think they should, not because they would listen to anything we said.

“We are 12th in the world for archaeology, so we are world-renowned. We are much better in terms of world standing than quite a lot of the departments that are getting more investment.

"They have said the department is in deficit, but that is not isolated to just our department, that is a pretty common thing across universities. But they have said because of low research output that is what has decided it.

"I would say they have seized an opportunity to do this rather than being actually concerned about this.”

Professor Albarella added: "The university may have taken whatever decision they like, but the whole international community without any exceptions is up in arms and is absolutely shocked and disgusted, and totally in our favour.”

A spokesperson from The University of Sheffield said: “The University of Sheffield has undertaken a review of its Department of Archaeology. Staff and student representatives participated in the review, and no decisions have been taken.”

To sign the petition, visit Change.org.