The precarious position of LIS departments in UK Higher Education

I have worked for ten years in a university department renowned for its teaching of professionally accredited undergraduate and postgraduate degrees across the broad range of library, information, archives and records management subjects that comprise our discipline.   It has been a real privilege to be able to help colleagues in the profession to gain the qualifications  that will allow them to advance in their careers.   Graduated students have gone on to take up prominent and influential positions across the globe.   It’s a wonderful thing to see that happening and to know that you played some part in helping that happen.

However.  In the decade that I’ve been doing this, I have seen the demise of a number of key LIS departments – most recently and shockingly in Loughborough.   Others are under severe pressure due to the impacts of sweeping changes to the Higher Education sector concerning funding and the very philosophy of education.   Government policies have deliberately sought to subject the whole HE sector to ‘market forces’ and the same social and economic Darwinism that blights so much of the rest of our culture.   Education is no longer seen as  a public good.   You have to pay your way: as a student, as an academic, as a department and as a university.

As a department – and as a discipline – you have to justify your existence in terms of the money you can bank in terms of student fees and the research funding you can pull in.  As an academic you have to pull in the research funding, spend large amounts of time trying to put together credible bids to get it, do actual research, demonstrate the world class nature of the “impacts” of this research for REF, do actual teaching, prepare for teaching, do marking, spend countless and seemingly pointless hours jumping through hoops to fulfil your institutional and administrative obligations by sitting on a plethora of committees….   often on contracts which specify no hours of work, and which have no ongoing security.

That’s pretty much the state for ALL disciplines, not just for LIS.  But in the increasingly market-driven and managerialist nature of the H.E. eco-system, where funding and resources are often inadequate to cover all the activities that the university may have previously engaged in, LIS can be in danger of being viewed as marginal and dispensible.   LIS is never going to be a cash cow that will pull in lots of students.   Neither, in general, does it offer the possibility of big research grants in the same way that some other disciplines can.

So what happens?   In resource allocation, year on year, you see colleagues who have left not replaced because central management will not allow you to replace them.   You see requests for new staff denied.  You see budgets cut.  All the time the increasing hold of ‘lean management’ requires remaining  staff to do the same – and more – with less and less capacity  Simultaneously,  more and more pressure, surveillance and threatening ‘perfomance management’ initiatives are being brought to bear on the remaining staff.

In the ascendent  neoliberal culture in which the creation of knowledge through research and teaching is not innately valued in and of itself, LIS is ripe for culling, so that money can be “better invested for better returns”.   Failing an outright cull, the strands of the discipline which are seen to useful to Business Studies can be stripped out and re-located within departments dealing with that area.

In my view this puts the whole discipline in severe jeopardy.  I would be most surprised if Loughborough is the last casualty we see.   There is schadenfreude for surviving LIS departments to hear that a competitor department has been axed – it means that you will perhaps pick up some more of the dwindling pool of LIS  students.   But will we eventually reach a situation where it will be a case of last (non-gender-specific metaphorical entity) standing ?

There is much grumbling amongst established LIS practitioners about the lack of engagement in H.E. LIS curricula with the real issues of contemporary practice.   This is often partnered by additional and related grumblings from students and early career LIS workers about why it is that they are expected to have to cough up a great amount of cash to study for an accredited UG or PG qualification that (in their view) doesn’t really prepare them for real work at the information coal face.

There are real issues to grapple with here, and I would be the first to say that much of the grumbling has some legitimacy.   However, I would also say that it is not the necessarily the case that academics in the LIS sector either don’t care or are unaware of what OUGHT to be done to improve things.   It may well be  a case of “not waving but drowning” under the pressures of trying to keep the wheels on a bus that is being inadequately maintained and resourced.   Managers crack their whips, demanding ceaseless innovation, ever increasing productivity and revenue generation, but without providing sufficent staff and resources to be able to accomplish this. It is a recipe for disaster, failure, and mental and emotional breakdown for staff on the end of this relentless pressure.

Given the noise that is made by the Powers about how incredibly important the Information/Knowledge Economy is, you might think (in a moment of fanciful delusion, perhaps)  that someone in government with responsibility for such matters (the Minister for the DCMS, for example) would recognise that the UK really NEEDS a substantial body of skilled information professionals.   If we keep losing the H.E. departments who currently train them, who is going to do this work instead ?   With ever greater pressures upon the time and resources available to LIS departments, who is going to conduct the research necessary to provide an evidence-base for policy and development of our practice in the profession?  You might think that it would be considered important to ensure that the discipline is adequately resourced, funded and nurtured, with some sort of national strategic view of how to accomplish this.   You might think that it would be important to foster awareness of the incredible variety and richness which available to students who embark on study and careers as information professionals.  Or you might conclude that, along with so many other things, the blind god of ‘The Market’ will be left to sort these things out along some kind of ‘survival of the fittest’ lines.

Unless I missed it I didn’t see a single reference in the Sieghart report to the role, value or potential of H.E. teaching and training of library professionals.   Instead there was enthusiasm for an organisation that works with teachers, with the implication that this might be a fabulous model to follow for LIS workforce development.    Why not invest in and properly resource H.E. departments researching and teaching LIS?    There really is need for debate about the nature of H.E.  LIS education and its relationship to ‘professional status’.  There really is need for  innovation and curriculum renewal – but it would be a sad day indeed if “the Future” is one that bypasses and consigns to irrelevance the good work that has been and is being done – and which COULD be done – in LIS academia.


3 thoughts on “The precarious position of LIS departments in UK Higher Education

  1. coppenheim

    Excellent piece. As a former Head of Department at Loughborough I couldn’t agree more. I was astonished that the stories were that the Head of Department at the time of closure actually supported the closure of his Department. Only point I don’t agree with 100% is the claim that other LIS Departments are showing Schadenfreude at the loss of LIS Departments. I suspect they are really concerned because they feel even more in the more firing line, and because colleagues and friends in other Departments are losing their jobs.

  2. Pingback: Sieghart’s Independent Library Report for England | Lauren Smith

  3. Rosie Hare (@RosieHare)

    Excellent piece and, I fear, painfully true. I think the HE sector is going to crash fairly soon. It was still riding some kind of golden wave when the ‘official’ recession hit, but I think something is going to happen before 2020 that shakes up the whole sector and (hopefully) causes some radical change.

    Either that, or the world will just end anyway cause humanity have wrecked everything.


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