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When job cuts are woke: using the language of social justice as a smokescreen

By axing medieval literature from its English courses, supposedly in favour of a ‘decolonised curriculum,’ Leicester University is making cynical use of progressive terminology to push through a cost-cutting agenda, argues RORY WATERMAN

LAST week, University of Leicester managers announced that its English degrees would no longer include medieval literature. 

Goodbye to the university’s long history of teaching Chaucer, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: room must be made, they said, for “modules on race, ethnicity, sexuality and diversity, a decolonised curriculum, and new employability modules.”

I am a graduate of Leicester’s English degree. Twenty years ago, humanities programmes had less of a focus on employability than they do now, but I learned some very useful transferrable skills — in addition to studying great writers from Chaucer to Sarah Kane, Salman Rushdie to Aphra Behn, and learning to navigate a broad cross-section of English literature and literary theory. 

Indeed, that degree taught me, more than anything has since, to see through spin and reach my own conclusions. 

So, the University of Leicester has put me in a good position to criticise what I think it is doing now: making cynical and superficial use of social justice terminology to push through what is essentially a streamlining and cost-cutting agenda, without receiving much pushback. 

After all, who wouldn’t argue that a drive for increased diversity is a good thing — apart from the far right?

Let’s leave the argument about whether or not there is a “culture war” to one side, though, because this is not an example of it. 

Needless to say, several right-wing outlets gladly took the bait, defending “tradition” against “such modish topics as race relations and feminism,” as the Daily Mail put it. 

But as Leicester English graduate Niraj Dave wrote on Twitter, “as a non-white Leicester grad who loves medieval Lit, this should have nothing to do with race, culture or identity.” 

The English department’s Dr Anne Marie D’Arcy also took to social media to rail against the “cynical attempt of Leicester’s management to create a false dichotomy between medieval studies and such buzzwords as race, ethnicity, sexuality and diversity, a decolonised curriculum.”

And it is a false dichotomy. You will struggle to find any postcolonial literature scholars, for example, who support the University of Leicester’s proposal. 

They’ll be standing solidly with the medievalists, some of whom are in fact also postcolonialists. 

As Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal put it, “Chaucer drew on rich resources of narrative traditions outside Europe. How on Earth could either diversity or decolonisation require him to be removed?” 

Besides, Leicester’s medievalists — whose teaching is, as university jargon has it, “research-led” — have a proud history of working in precisely the areas the university says it suddenly wants to prioritise. 

Dr David Clark, for example, is also — as the other side of the same academic coin — a gender studies scholar. 

Dr D’Arcy works on anti-Judaic discourse, and deconstructs ideas of gender down to their Indo-European roots. 

She’s also writing a book about James Joyce’s use of medieval Irish history through the lens of postcolonialism. 

Dr Ben Parsons’s work concentrates on gender, specifically transgressive women in the later Middle Ages. 

Dr Philip Shaw works on ideas of race and ethnicity and has traced (and debunked) the Aryan myth which inspires neonazis. 

And of course medieval studies is part of the fabric, the undergirding, of everything that has followed. That fabric includes aspects of the curriculum Leicester will — rightly — retain, including modern postcolonial literatures and modules about gender and sexuality.

So, could there perhaps be another reason for Leicester’s decision? Those who wrote to the university to express disappointment received a boilerplate response explaining that it was facing “significant financial challenges.” 

Publicly, the university wants people to believe it is interested in increasing diversity; slightly less publicly, it is willing to admit it wants to save money, and it seems likely to sack some of the world’s best academics and destroy unique courses in order to do so.

Most press outlets who have covered this have ignored one phrase from the university’s raison d’etre: “modules about employability.” (Enjoy the irony.) 

Modern universities must prepare students for life beyond, and such modules are a significant part of that. 

However, it is worth pointing out that they are also relatively cheap: most of the seminar teaching is replaced by work placements. 

By any other sensible measure, Leicester has the balance right already. When they graduate, most students get good jobs: the Complete University Guide places Leicester English graduates’ “prospects” in the top third nationwide for the subject — a higher position than the university comes in the main league table. 

Will future graduates’ prospects be higher? Do employees want graduates who haven’t studied enough of the subject they signed up to study? Is reducing 1,500 years of literary history to the past 400 years a fair compromise for more work placements?

And what do current students think? The university claims it is following their wishes. It has a big platform with which to make this claim — but so do the students, when they band together, and it seems that the University of Leicester is inadvertently giving them a lesson in collective action. 

On Saturday, Leicester UCU announced that most of Leicester’s English undergraduates had, within 20 minutes, signed a petition against the proposal. That’s staggering. 

Leicester’s marketing slogan used to be “Elite without being elitist,” which always struck me as essentially true. 

For Leicester isn’t a Russell Group university, and most students don’t come from private school backgrounds. 

Most universities “like” Leicester do not teach much medieval literature (though they don’t eradicate it either), and the majority of universities where it is studied in detail could not use that strapline for fear of ridicule. 

I was a working-class student who never dreamed of going to Oxbridge, and Leicester gave me all I could’ve wanted of an Oxbridge education. As another former student put it, “they’re robbing opportunity from students of my background.” 

It isn’t very anti-elitist to help ensure the study of 1,000 years of literary history is only available to people who go to a tiny number of elite institutions. 

Do the rest of us not deserve it? Will that increase diversity?

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