UCU strike ballots over Sheffield archeology department closure

The university said that low numbers of firm undergraduate offers – just 10 for the next academic year – made the department unviable

The University of Sheffield branch of the University and College Union is to ballot members over plans to close the archaeology department, ranked as a leading national centre for the subject.

The decision to ballot follows a Monday vote of the University Council to support a University Executive Board recommendation to disband the department, retaining only osteoarchaeology and cultural heritage in other departments.

The union says the council vote bypassed the University Senate, which was also not allowed to offer recommendations to the Council.

Sheffield UCU also claims to have “serious ethical and procedural concerns” with a consultation with staff and students, including an allegation that the university staff had destroyed notes and transcripts from meetings. The university denied wrongdoing, explaining it did not retain confidential and commercially sensitive information for longer than necessary.

University of Sheffield UCU branch officer Robyn Orfitelli said the move to close the department “would harm students, staff and the global study of archaeology”. The Society of Antiquaries, the European Association of Archaeologists and the Council for British Archaeology (CBA) all criticised the council decision. The CBA described the decision as “devastating” to a department with “a very high profile in the archaeological and academic world”.

Despite criticism, the university said that low numbers of firm undergraduate offers – just 10 for the next academic year – made the department unviable. Staff argue the downward trend relates to an increased A-level tariff at Sheffield. After muting plans for closure, a petition in opposition to the UEB decision attracted more than 42,000 signatures from academics across the UK.

We believe in a university [that] prioritises education and actively values the staff and students who are at the heart of our community, and we will escalate our fight until management is willing to listen
– Robyn Orfitelli, Sheffield UCU

University vice-chancellor Prof Koen Lamberts said archaeology postgraduate students would still be taught at the university. “This decision will ensure that many fantastic projects and the outstanding work our staff and students undertake with partners and communities within the city and far beyond it will continue to enrich our cultural heritage, knowledge of the past and people’s lives,” he said.

The union says its success in opposing ‘fire and rehire’ contracts at the university had buoyed its hopes for a further victory over senior managers.

Orfitelli said: “At Monday’s meeting, the University Council voted to support UEB’s proposals, despite the serious ethical and procedural concerns that have been raised about how the review was conducted, and further governance concerns that have been raised about every step of the process, including Senate being denied the opportunity to vote on the proposal.’

“We had hoped management would have learned the lessons from last year’s failed ‘fire and rehire’ cost-cutting exercise. But staff and students are still being ignored. We believe in a university [that] prioritises education and actively values the staff and students who are at the heart of our community, and we will escalate our fight until management is willing to listen.”


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