Friday 22 June 2012

Why universities close down courses: my experience

I have worked in higher education for nearly twenty years, first by teaching a module I co-devised on children's literature in the Education MA at the University of North London, then the same module at the university UNL became - London Metropolitan. I then left London Met and devised a children's literature module on the MA in modern literatures at Birkbeck, University of London. Next step: I co-devised a whole MA in Children's Literature (critical pathway) and the MA in Children's Literature and Writing (critical and creative) for Birkbeck.

This last course has taken in two cohorts of students. The first cohort will qualify this year, the second next year. And then that's it. There will no longer be the MACL and the MACLW at Birkbeck.

The reason why I left London Met and went to Birbeck was because the authorities at London Met refused to advertise the MA outside of the Education department. At the outset they advertised it across London schools and I had about 35 students. Then they said it could only be advertised within the university. That brought the numbers down to about 12. Then, they said it could only be advertised to those doing an Education MA which brought the numbers down to about 4 or 5. At that point I said thanks but I'm leaving.

I took it to Birkbeck because I have a huge respect for Birkbeck who have presented to thousands of people the opportunity to go to a first rate university at any point in their lives, part-time and after work. I've known people either studying or teaching there for a good deal of my life. 

Because the one-term option that I taught was doing well, I suggested that maybe the English Department could be the home for a full MA in Children's Literature, making it the only one in central London. It took about 18 months hard work to develop and get ratification but we started teaching the first set of students in October 2010.

The course is now being terminated. I will do whatever teaching and supervision and marking is necessary to see these two cohorts through their MAs. I feel personally responsible for having kicked off the idea of this MA in the first place and have put a good deal of myself into the idea that there could be a some kind of centre for the study and research of children's literature in Central London. The students themselves have devoted massive amounts of time and money into it too and it's vital that they have everything they need right the way through to the end. I will do all I can to make sure that happens.

I'm not 100% sure about exactly why the course is coming to an end and, to tell the truth, I'm not sure that the precise reason matters very much. The general one is what counts and that's economic. Either the university or the English department or both are strapped for cash. The Children's Literature course needs staff. The English department cannot provide teachers of children's literature  from within its existing staff, nor can it afford to take on new staff. Obviously, I can't teach it all myself (I don't mean physically, I mean it wouldn't be ratified even if I could!). 

I'm no expert on the financing of higher education. I suspect what has happened here is only a microcosm and/or another species of what is going on everywhere: financial constraints are causing courses to close. As it happens, this MA was 'profitable' partly because I'm not a full time member of staff with years of increments to my name. What's important here, though, is that was not a good enough reason to keep the course going.