Axing Middlesex's top-rated department is a step back to when philosophy meant white men discussing formal logic over sherry.Under the banner of the financial crisis, recent months have seen management threaten departments and jobs in post-92 and Russell group universities alike. Although no clear national pattern of cuts has emerged, philosophy has been singled out by several institutions. Threats to philosophy at Liverpool and King's College London were greeted with international outcry and management retreat. Recent news that philosophy recruitment at both undergraduate and postgraduate level at Middlesex University will be terminated is a particularly terrible blow, both to the standing of philosophy in the UK and to the future of critical thought in our universities as a whole.
The decision to cut philosophy at Middlesex appears not to be motivated by any of the "obvious" reasons: economic rationale, falling student numbers or poor research standing. Middlesex philosophy has one of the largest MA programmes in the country, has experienced increasing postgraduate recruitment, and was the highest-scoring department in the university in the recent research assessment exercise. It is ranked 13th out of 41 institutions teaching philosophy in the UK, ahead of Sussex, Warwick, York, Durham and Glasgow.
Middlesex philosophy has been responsible for bringing contemporary thinkers to a wide audience through numerous international events and collaborations with European and American institutions, as well as cultural venues in London, such as the French Institute and Tate Britain. The postgraduate centre for research in modern European philosophy receives research grants from national funding bodies and there are 63 postgraduate students working on MAs and PhDs. It is an important and unique place – without doubt one of the few philosophy departments in the country where you can study contemporary European thought in any sustained way. It is also one of the only philosophy departments in existence that takes seriously philosophy's relation to other disciplines and to the world at large. The research centre at Middlesex is an institution as important to people not in philosophy as to those within it, and plays a critical role in the intellectual and cultural life of London.
There has been a slew of articles on Comment is Free in recent days lamenting the poor showing of women and ethnic minorities in philosophy and at philosophy-related events (Bidisha, Julian Baggini, Hilary Lawson). Middlesex is one of the few departments whose curriculum addresses this imbalance as a problem for and within philosophy, rather than pretending that the discipline itself plays no role in perpetuating class, gender and racial divisions.
The closure of philosophy at Middlesex will send a terrible message: that philosophy doesn't belong in ex-polytechnics, even when they achieve better results than elite institutions. It implies that philosophy isn't for "non-traditional" students (much of Middlesex's intake comes from lower-income and mature students, who juggle work and families in order to attend). It reflects incredibly badly on the management of Middlesex that it would destroy the long-term achievements and potential of its philosophy department in the name of spurious short-term considerations. To close philosophy there would be to fall in line with the increasingly prevalent, but disastrous view, that newer universities should be little more than holding pens for students channelled away from the study of serious subjects.
Interest in philosophy has in fact grown massively in recent years. This is, in part, due to the increased numbers of students taking A-level philosophy, but is also the result of the widespread desire for critical thought and analysis in the face of an increasingly disorienting world. Closure at Middlesex would be a step back to the bad old days when philosophy meant a few young, white and almost entirely male students at privileged institutions discussing the finer points of formal logic over sherry. Middlesex University must be prevented from dismantling one of the finest philosophy departments in the country: fight to keep philosophy alive.