Yesterday, I found out that UWE Bristol were announcing the potential shutdown of their Philosophy department to new students after this year.
I found this out from a tweet, which shared a petition launched by a just-graduated student yesterday. While I’m not sure how effective the petition might be, it has recieved 2700 signatures in a day. I encourage you to sign and share this petition, in the hope that it persuades whoever made this decision to change their mind. The decision to close the UWE philosophy course is counterproductive and destructive, for reasons I’ll detail below. More importantly, this decision was made abruptly, with little consultation or communication.
Whoever made this decision has acted rashly and callously, leaving a cohort of foundation year students (and their programme leaders) unsure of whether the course they are preparing for will even exist after their preparation year. No student or staff member deserves to be placed in this position.
So, why is this decision misguided? Below the cut are three major reasons:
- Philosophy is one of UWEs most successful and highest-rated courses.
- UWEs philosophy course offers a unique module other philosophy courses cannot match.
- Philosophy is one of the most important subjects a university can offer, and philosophy graduates have essential skills and knowledge for today’s society.
Note: I’m not currently affiliated with UWE, aside from being an alumnus. I studied both of my degrees at UWE, and published my MSc research with supervision from UWE staff. I’m also not a philosophy student or graduate; my view of the value of philosophy comes from personal study and from how philosophy links to my degree subjects of psychology and science communication.
Philosophy is one of UWEs most successful and highest-rated courses
UWE is the 28th best university in the UK overall. In its best-performing subject area, Film Production and Photography, UWE is 3rd in the UK.
In second place is Philosophy, where UWE is the 6th most highly-ranked in the UK. This is ahead of Russell Group stars like Exeter and Bristol. (Architecture is the only other course with an equal ranking to Philsosophy.)
The trusted metric used to compare student’s experiences of university courses is the National Student Satisfaction survey. Philosophy at UWE succeeds here – in the last survey, 100% of final year students on the course were satisfied with its quality.
In 2018, 94% of UWE students in Health and Social Sciences (which includes Philosophy as well as Psychology, Criminology, Social Work and Public Health) were in work or further study 6 months after graduating.
Finally, the average starting salary for philosophy graduates overall is £23,521, which places philosophy comfortably in the middle of subjects.
Whether or not you agree with university success being measured by metrics, ratings, and graduate employment, UWE, especially Philosophy at UWE, is performing well by those metrics. By these rating-focused and job-focused standards, Philosophy is one of the most successful courses within UWE, and so closing the programme seems incredibly counter-productive.
UWEs Philosophy course offers an important module that other universities can’t match.
UWE is not the only university to offer a module that deals with the incredibly important topic of ethics in technology, but its approach is unique thanks to its collaboration with the Bristol Robotics Lab.
(For example, the University of Southampton offers an “Ethics in Science Technology and Engineering” module in its “Philosophy, Ethics and Religion” degree. However, I don’t think any other university includes this topic in its core Philosophy degree.)
Students on UWEs Philosophy courses and their Automation and Robotics Engineering course both take the “Ethics in Technology” module, which is co-taught by philosophy lecturers and the BRL. This module explores topics ranging from surveillance to autonomous warfare to desigining care assistance robots, and even the potential consequences of conscious robots.
The BRL is led by Professor Alan Winfield, who is part of the committee in charge of the global initiative to create ethical standards for designing AI and autonomous systems.
Ethics in technology and AI is a major talking point now, yet its importance is only going to increase. No other university philosophy course can currently offer such a deep connection to the cutting-edge of an issue that will affect every aspect of society in future. Closing this course and removing this access to unique scholarship is short-sighted.
Philosophy is one of the most important subjects a university can offer
Given its timing, I believe the decision was made based on similar principles as the Australian government’s decision to increase prices on humanities subjects while decreasing prices for STEM subjects. Th Australian decision was made to focus universities on “job-relevant” degrees. In this case, “job-relevant” means sciences and medical courses, implying that humanities subjects are not seen as important for jobs.
Lets say that you agree with the view that universities are places where people prepare for the workplace, and that the ultimate goal of higher education is for graduates to succeed at high-skilled jobs that improve the UKs economic position. If that statement is true, then logically the most important university courses are the ones which equip graduates with skills and knowledge needed for today’s jobs. In that case, philosophy is in the upper echelon of job-preparing courses.
Studying philosophy develops critical thinking, the ability to analyse information and evaluate the logic and assumptions of claims. It requires the ability to deal with dense and complex information, put it in context, and communicate it to others. Analytical thinking, critical thinking, and communication are essential skills employers want from graduates. As a result, closing philosophy courses in the pursuit of job relevance is a deeply misguided decision.
Thinkers have argued that our current laser-focus on STEM and especially technology startups, at the expense of the humanities and philosophy, is destructive. For example, “echo chambers” arguably happen when social networks offer people an infinite feed of only information they say they like without considering the consequences. Any discussion of fact-checking requires confronting issues of truth, the control of information, and how to verify both information and its curators. Dealing with this type of problem requires philosophical analysis and reflection as much as it requires code. Thinking about problems like this, its clear to me that reducing access to philosophy in a world where information literacy and evaluating claims is more important than ever is an irrational decision.
Hopefully, I’ve convinced you to sign the petition by now. Even if you aren’t a philosophy fan, these students and staff members deserve better.
Philosophy league table results – https://www.theguardian.com/education/ng-interactive/2019/jun/07/university-guide-2020-league-table-for-philosophy
UWE Philosophy NSS ratings and responses – https://discoveruni.gov.uk/course-details/10007164/V500/FullTime/
Employability statistics for Health and Social Sciences at UWE – https://www1.uwe.ac.uk/about/ourstory/employability/graduatedestinations/healthandsocialsciences.aspx
Graduate salary data – https://www.savethestudent.org/student-jobs/whats-the-expected-salary-for-your-degree.html#table
Bristol Robotics Lab – https://www.bristolroboticslab.com/robotic-ethics
Ethics in Technology module description – https://info.uwe.ac.uk/Modules/displayentry.asp?code=UZRSSR-15-3&rp=listEntry.asp
The IEEE Standards for Autonomous Systems – https://standards.ieee.org/industry-connections/ec/autonomous-systems.html
TargetJobs career skills page – https://targetjobs.co.uk/careers-advice/skills-and-competencies/668281-analytical-skills-the-ability-to-make-sense-of-data
Article about why tech needs humanities graduates – https://qz.com/1016900/tracy-chou-leading-silicon-valley-engineer-explains-why-every-tech-worker-needs-a-humanities-education/