In Defense of Sociology & Geography

The proposal to close or ‘streamline’ key areas in social science begs fundamental questions about what a university is for, as Noam Chomsky pointed out on 3rd June. In their haste to pursue financial and strategic aims, managers have forgotten that a university does not exist to ‘produce’ grant income and research papers. The wealth created within university walls is not easily measurable or immediately obvious – but it is nonetheless important. All students in higher education develop new ways of thinking and engaging with the world – this is why areas of academic study are called disciplines. In the social sciences, students learn to question the world around them and understand how that world is deeply interconnected. The skills of identifying patterns, seeking evidence for claims and thinking independently are not only useful for workers in an information economy, they are also crucial for citizens of a democracy.

The social sciences do not have a monopoly on wisdom, as Alex Salmond said of the Scottish National Party. However, we do hold an important perspective, and we study areas that are overlooked or taken for granted by other disciplines. Management’s zealous enforcement of its ‘strategic plan’ only underlines its own short-sightedness. A ‘technological university’ is pointless if we lack the capacity to understand the meaning of that technology for human beings. Our world’s most pressing problems cannot be solved by technology alone, and technology certainly cannot help students understand their place in the world. Invoking the university motto, ‘a place of useful learning’ it is important to ask, useful for what? Useful for whom? To what end?

Geography and Sociology at Strathclyde maintain a strong focus on public interest research, examining topics of concern beyond university strategy. These topics include issues of inequality and social justice, culture and identity, the privatisation of public services, lobbying and spin, media and political power, ethnicity and migration, environment and sustainability, globalisation, and even the social and cultural aspects of technology. Our concern with public issues forms a key part of our teaching, and we help students to develop critical and creative ways of thinking about the world and its problems. The ongoing popularity of our courses, our students’ high percentage of good degrees and our excellent scores and positive feedback on student satisfaction surveys all indicate that for our students, Geography and Sociology does provide a ‘place of useful learning.’

One of the strengths of social science at Strathclyde is that students are able to study a broad range of social science disciplines. However, because we do not conceive of usefulness in the same limited terms as university management, our high-quality programmes have been under-funded for years, and are now being replaced by a narrow ‘social policy stream.’ Maintaining a diverse disciplinary base for student learning and socially-relevant research is being sacrificed to the whims of finance and strategy, which themselves have been determined by the values and priorities of business. A broad range of research has shown that running universities as if they were businesses damages not only the experience of students and staff, but also the ‘usefulness’ of a university in meeting the needs of the society it serves.

Ultimately, we need to consider who and what a university is actually for. At the end of the day, that’s what this is all about.

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