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Queen's University vice-chancellor Patrick Johnston: Can we put my history blunder in the past?

Furious online backlash over vice-chancellor's remarks in Belfast Telegraph interview

By Rebecca Black

Published 01/06/2016

QUB’s vice-chancellor Patrick Johnston
QUB’s vice-chancellor Patrick Johnston

The vice-chancellor of Queen's University in Belfast has apologised to his own school of history after claiming "society does not need a 21-year-old that's a sixth century historian".

The comment by Patrick Johnston sparked fury online, with many members of Mr Johnston's own history department contacting the Belfast Telegraph.

It inspired a critical article in the online edition of magazine History Today, and the row even earned its own Twitter account yesterday @QUBsixthcentury.

Mr Johnston made the controversial remark in the Belfast Telegraph's Big Interview on Monday. He had been talking about the impact of last year's £8m Stormont funding cuts on the university.

Mr Johnston said, in real terms, there had been a 24% cut between 2010 and 2014. The vice-chancellor announced major cuts earlier this year, including slashing almost 240 jobs and more than 1,000 student places.

Asked by the Belfast Telegraph if more cuts were due to be announced, he said the university had resized and reshaped itself, amalgamating several schools.

More: Sounding off like David Brent just hurts his office

He said it had stopped offering single honours degrees in sociology and anthropology, "but intend to strengthen those subjects by allowing them to partner with other subject areas which actually make their relevance more connected".

Asked if such a move would make graduates in those courses more employable, Mr Johnston responded: "Two things I would argue. One is that, in other words a broader spectrum, because society doesn't need a 21-year-old that's a sixth century historian.

 

"It needs a 21-year-old who really understands how to analyse things, understands the tenets of leadership and contributing to society, who is a thinker and someone who has the potential to help society drive forward. I don't talk about producing graduates, I talk about producing citizens that have the potential for leadership in society."

In an article for the Belfast Telegraph, Tom Holland, presenter of BBC Radio 4's Making History, accused Mr Johnston of stabbing his staff and students in the back. "Quite what someone charged with the defence of university education thinks he is up to sounding off like David Brent at his most philistine, I am at a loss to imagine," he writes.

"Any university vice-chancellor looking 'to help society drive forward' should be supporting the teachers and students of the period to the very best of his ability - not stabbing them in the back."

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An article in History Today described Mr Johnston's remark as "astonishing" from a head of a university. Medieval historian Charles West wrote that "surely the VC of a university can hardly not know that history as it is taught at universities is essentially all about analysis.

"To think otherwise is to profoundly misunderstand the skills that are honed in the course of a history degree."

Mr Johnston met members of his school of history yesterday afternoon and later issued an apology on Twitter.

"I was happy to have the opportunity to provide clarification on comments made within the Belfast Telegraph article of May 30, 2016 which related to the study of history," the statement read.

"In the interview I wanted to stress that a university education is more than the study of any one subject and that the aim is to produce graduates who have the potential to become leaders within our society. History graduates at Queen's are thinkers who have the capacity to help drive society forward.

"I sincerely apologise if there was any misunderstanding in the interview and would place on record that I have regard for students, colleagues and alumni from history."

Belfast Telegraph

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