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Medical Ethics at Keele to be Axed?

17 Mar, 11 | by Iain Brassington

This was supposed to be embargoed, but there’ve been enough leaks to make me think I can go public with it: news has emerged today that the Centre for Professional Ethics at Keele (PEAK) is facing the axe, as is the Keele Philosophy programme.

A Senate Paper detailing the proposed cuts is widely available, and people outside Keele can view it here.  The general gist of it is that most of PEAK’s activity is to go, with a small amount absorbed into the Law School.  The Philosophy programme is to go as well.  It also looks as though the problems faced by PEAK and the Philosophy department are attributable to a combination of the recession and bad management by the University; hardly unique, hardly incurable, and hardly grounds to close the academic department.

As far as I know, the decision hasn’t been finalised yet – I believe that the relevant meeting will be in April – so there’s still time to do something about it.

Any decision to shut PEAK would be senseless.  I’m informed that, not so long ago, the department provided Keele with 2% of its overall income.  But even if you put that aside, PEAK is an academic gem, and any half-sane university would do everything it could to keep it going.  PEAK boasts an absurdly high concentration of talent, with world-standard researchers in reproductive ethics, public health ethics, and research ethics (to name just three fields).  Its web of alumni and former staff demonstrates just how successful it has been over the years at attracting and honing talent, and sending it back out in to the world.

I have personal reasons to be very attached to PEAK.  At the start of my career, the Centre went out of its way to provide me with an office, library access, and enough teaching to keep me solvent, and did so for long enough that I could cobble together enough publications to stand a chance of getting my current gig in Manchester.  The three years I spent there were a joy.

And, of course, my co-blogger David Hunter is based at Keele.

This is a very bad day for Keele University, and a very bad day for bioethics in the UK, if not the world.

Facebook groups for both have been set up here (for PEAK) and here (for Philosophy).  If you would like to express your opinion of the proposal (politely please) the VC can be contacted here:
Prof. Nick Foskett, VC: n.h.foskett@vco.keele.ac.uk ; you could cc: Prof. Rama Thirunamachandran, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost: r.thirunamachandran@vco.keele.ac.uk, and Prof. David Shepherd, Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences d.g.shepherd@humss.keele.ac.uk – both of whom are signatories to the proposed restructuring.  Please, though, do keep things polite.

(Thanks to Andrew Willetts for the Senate Paper link)

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  • Keith Tayler

    Just had a look at the figures on the Senate Paper link. Not sure what you mean by ‘bad management by the University’. Is the ‘University’ responsible for the staffing levels at PEAK? (As Ryle might say, “What and where is the university management?“) The problem is these levels are out of control and do not appear to be controllable for at least the next four years. It is a very difficult problem. Is it ethical to keep open a department that is a financial burden upon the university’s other departments? For sure you have a local view, but looking at the bigger picture it might be best if PEAK was cut. My own local view of philosophy departments that closed twenty years ago is that most of them have reopened under new management and are doing quite well.

  • http://www.law.manchester.ac.uk/aboutus/staff/iain_brassington Iain Brassington

    The management point synthesises a couple of things I've been told more or less formally by people close to the process. The University's figures are, it would seem, not wholly reliable. And, of course, there's another question to be addressed about what you want a University to be…

  • Keith Tayler

    If the figures are wrong there might be room for some cost-cutting and a bit of contraction (it has become very big).

    What is a university? That is a question universities appear not to be addressing. I think that the humanities, for the want of a better term, have not quite understood that technology and the world has changed and that means they must. Onora O’Neill asked ‘Could any of us demonstrate that contemporary applied ethics is more than the scholasticism of a liberal tradition?’ She is not far wrong.

  • John O'Malley

    Much as I don't like to say this but Universities are businesses and the problem has been they have often not thought that way. The closing of departments is regrettable but everyone affected always screams in pain but a more dispassionate viewpoint has be used.
    Keith is right, times have changed and the needs of the future are different as are the ways of meeting those needs. I am not saying courses should be viewed as only ' what financial gain will come to the general economy from the graduating students?' as, speaking as a scientist, I am well aware how often science benefits from what appears , at first, pointless research. But the humanities have to get their head out of the sand and at least see how they can adapt so that they meet the needs of society. Universities need to be relevant and they are not there to exist in a bubble of innocence. I will not shed any tears about the multitude of politics degree courses going down the drain because I think they add little.
    That all said, closing down ethoics departments is a negative concept. At a ta time when technology is creating more and more ethical questions we need more clinicians , especially, who can respond to challenges and communicate reasoned ideas to both the public and politicians. As for philosophy departments………………desert island…..economist…….philosopher……..engineer……Who would you want to get you off the island? And dont say, let's assume …

  • John Coggon

    Hi there.

    I think we should probably at least assume that we're not a desert island (as we're not) – it seems a rather odd thought experiment to invoke in an anti-philosopher argument!

    And rightly or wrongly, it's not clear how your position won't boil down to a “what financial gain…” evaluation.

    I guess you'd bring the economist with you even if he wasn't much help on the desert island?

  • S Nicholls

    Does the reopening of philosophy departments (and being run successfully as you say) not indicate:
    a) the initial folly at their closure
    b) that it is the management that needs to be addressed?

  • http://www.law.manchester.ac.uk/aboutus/staff/iain_brassington Iain Brassington

    I'm not sure that arguing about the point or relevance of a given subject is going to be all that useful; and I'd perhaps cast things more in terms of the point of higher education tout court if we have to play that game.

    And in that sense, there's two possible answers I'd offer. The first you won't like: it's that education is a good, just as health is, and that's all there is to it. (Questions about the NHS that asked what the point of health is would have missed something important…) The second is that the point of HE would seem to be that it trains – or ought to train – people in critical thinking, a skill that is eminently transferrable. Some people are wired for maths, some for politics, chemistry, philosophy, or whatever. That's just a detail. The important thing is that they end up with a much sharpened intellect. Universities give people a bag of mental tools; and, actually, those tools are very similar across the traditional subjects.

    To this extent, I'd resist vocationalisation. As any fule kno, the first thing that anyone does once they get a job is go on a training course, irrespective of their degree; universities don't train people, and never have. Nor should they: if a private company wants to train people, it shouldn't be up to the public sector or the potential employee to pay for it.

    Things like medicine are an exception here, but I don't think that that alters the general claim. Indeed, the clinical part of a medic's training does have a sort of resemblance to an apprenticeship.

  • Keith Tayler

    They tend to open with a new direction and financing. This usually means that they specialise in a particular area of philosophy with the broader areas of philosophy taught in multidiscipline departments. This does not appeal to the purists, but the purists are often their own worse enemy.

    As to the management. The closures during the 80s and 90s were caused be lack finance. In short, something had to go and philosophy is easier to cut than many other disciplines. It is also easier to restart which is part of its strength.

  • John O'Malley

    Only if we could barter the economist for a boat to get us off the island. or we could eat him!

  • http://www.law.manchester.ac.uk/aboutus/staff/iain_brassington Iain Brassington

    and that means they must

    I'm pretty sure that there's a couple of steps missing from your argument here… And suppose O'Neill's question touches on truth: well, so what?

  • Keith Tayler

    I have discussed the technology and change before, but the above is nonetheless a complete little observation on the university. O'neill's point is that applied ethics is 'dominated by established and often by establishment views' – which supports my view that bioethics etc. needs to change. That is the what.

  • http://www.law.manchester.ac.uk/aboutus/staff/iain_brassington Iain Brassington

    If that is O'Neill's view of applied ethics as a discipline, it's not one I recognise; but even if she's right, that's not sufficient to generate a manifesto for change. Biology departments are full of people with an establishment view of genetics, evolution, and creationism – but I don't think that they should change. Why is ethics so fundamentally different?

  • Keith Tayler

    It was written about 1982 and I recognised it then. Things have not improved – indeed whole new departments have openned to study establishment ideas and ideology.

    You are right – there are biology departments full of people with estabishment ideas. I think they should change because genetics and evolution has changed (one of the problems of with bioethics is that there are too many people that are not aware of this change). Having said that, I am also quite a conservative when it comes to science and have spent much of my life researching various fashions in science and pseudo-science (much of todays establishment genetics is a fashion that suits some researchers). Ethics is not science in that it has its traditions and does not always travel well. It is fundamentally different and should keep moving. Again I am conservative in these matters, but surely there must always be room for change.

    Think we are not going to agree on this.

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