The Academy In Peril

October 15, 2010

The Browne Review of university education is an extraordinary attack on the humanities. In fact, it’s an attack on anything which isn’t “medicine, science, engineering and modern languages.” If you aren’t one of the lucky four subjects deemed economically crucial, then any state support for research and teaching will be cut off, leaving universities to keep such courses running through resort to philanthropy or astronomically rising tuition fees (which students in the “core” subjects will, needless to say, also be paying).

The way that such barbarism is being sold is cute. Although Browne’s recommendations are not binding, and any translation of them into law would have to work its way through the Houses of Parliament, the head of Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, is urging its members and MPs to make haste to do precisely that. As Steve Smith put it in an e-mail sent to all universities and leaked to the BBC, “The biggest worry is simple to state: if Browne fails to get through the Commons, or gets un-picked, or gets accepted but only after major changes are made, we will simply not be able to replace the unprecedented reductions in state funding that are coming in the spending review.”

The coalition government has tabled £4.2 billion in spending cuts to the (public) universities budget. Hence, if they want to continue running any courses at all in the future, universities will have to line up behind the Browne reforms, as they are the only game in town. Then, if passed, they can begin implementing unpalatable, but from their perspective essential, rises in tuition fees to plug the gap. Any pretence at democracy is utterly absent. This is a particularly brutal piece of blackmail directed at universities and MPs alike. After all, none of them want to see higher education institutions close in their constituencies.

But the NUS president Aaron Porter makes the point that vice-chancellors are hardly aghast at the likely outcomes. As he says, VCs have been “gleefully rubbing their hands at the prospect of receiving even more money from graduates’ pockets” having “utterly failed in their huge responsibility to defend students, courses and universities that enrich our economy and society.” And he’s absolutely right that “The true agenda of the coalition government this week is to strip away all public support for arts, humanities and social science provision in universities and to pass on the costs directly to students’ bank accounts.”

All of this is backed up by a cheap economism. How has it come to pass that the higher education sector is being dismantled at the urging of people like Professor Anna Vignoles (of the “Centre for the Economics of Education”) who says that “Rationally, at the moment the government is subsidising courses that appear to have very little in market value, (so) reducing that subsidy or taking it away may make sense from an economic perspective.”

For her, and for Browne et al, literature, art, history, social sciences, world languages, anthropology, archaeology, philosophy and political studies – are all to be price-tagged and dumped to rot away in the discount basket. But to her credit, she’s not a total robot. Some flicker of humanity within her admits that “we may still want history graduates even if there isn’t a good market return, and if you take away all the subsidy you’re relying on institutions themselves cross-subsidising.”

For Browne himself, there is no doubt that history and similar subjects can be discarded. In fact, it’s not a problem at all, as “The government can always choose to recycle money back into the sector from time to time.” Every five years or so the library might get a new history book. In Browne’s mind, that’s “sustainable.” He seems to drastically underestimate the cost of maintaining high quality library services, publishing, information technology and, not least, teaching services for humanities students. Or, as I suspect, he knows all too well, and simply does not believe the costs to be “worth it.”

Reading the report itself, absurdities abound. This is not a serious document. That’s the first thing people should realise about it. For example, under “principle 2” it states that “student choice should increase” which sounds plausible. But the suggestion that prospective students “are best placed to make the judgement about what they want to get from participating in higher education” is ridiculous. Students know very little about the subjects that they choose aged 18 beyond a general interest, unless they have been subjected to an unhealthy quotient of parental encouragement leading up to matriculation. They know that they like alcohol, drugs, clubbing, sport and sex. They know that they want to be free to indulge in these things away from their parents. This does not mean that a central goal should be that “Their choices will shape the landscape of higher education.”

What Browne meant to write was that “parental choice” (and the skills of university marketing and PR departments) should shape the “landscape of higher education.” This is all part of creating a “market” in the sector, just as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown tried to do with schools (and hospitals). The theory is that students will gravitate towards high achieving, pleasant institutions. Lower quality ones would then reform – or die. But in reality, this would never happen. For a start, choices are not made solely on academic merits (and in any case, we already know that certain universities are better funded and staffed than others in this regard. Nothing much would change.) Secondly, universities lagging behind would be forced to cut their fees, offering an Easyjet-style service with lower quality services and teaching. This might be poor quality stuff, but it would be attractive to poorer families. It is less likely that such institutions would be able to invest in facilities and personnel in order to “catch up” with high performing ones. Thirdly, as hinted above, many universities would simply close, or become specialist colleges seeking a chunk of the public subsidy for core subjects like engineering or medicine. The term “university” would be something of a joke in such cases – the ideal of academic reflection and instruction being far removed from the kind of factory mentality behind the envisaged reforms. “Monoversity” might be better.

The likely outcome is familiar to students of any market system – concentration and monopoly. Elite universities would garner the majority of public funds and tuition fees income. Other universities would wither and decay.

Elsewhere in the report, magical thinking is substituted for reason. In one section it recommends that “Every school will be required to make individualised careers advice available to its pupils” (or “student choice” would be inoperable). Those with experience of careers “guidance” will welcome the desire that ” advice will be delivered by certified professionals who are well informed, benefit from continued training and professional development and whose status in schools is respected and valued” but this is highly unlikely to transpire. As the training (or retraining) of thousands of careers professionals will surely be eschewed in favour of outsourcing the job to a contractor, we can be fairly certain that advice will really be supplied by teams of roving careers advisers. The idea of specialised and competent careers departments rooting themselves in schools across the country is simply laughable.

There is more bullshit to come though. One passage waxes about how “Institutions and students will work together to produce Student Charters that provide detailed information about specific courses and include commitments made by students to the academic community they are joining.” And this comes soon after an attack on “bureaucracy.” Imagine hordes of students actually taking such charters at their word and demanding that they be implemented. Oh the paperwork!

The next paragraph is the most amusing of the lot. You may need to settle yourself. Apparently, “The higher education system will expand to accommodate demand from qualified applicants who have the potential to succeed.” That tells you all you need to know about the quality of the report in general. Absolute guff.

In reality, this talk about “student choice” is a disgusting piece of either willful doubletalk, or whimsical self-delusion. It is nothing more than cover for recommendations that seek to raise the cost of higher education for everyone (although with a particular rise for middle-class students). At the same time, they seek to move the burden for paying for higher education from taxation, which could be gathered by taxing the wealthy in innumerable ways, to a series of private taxes implemented by universities. There is, as 2Unlimited sang memorably, “no limit, no no limit” to the heights that such taxes could reach.


2 Responses to “The Academy In Peril”

  1. WatsonLow Says:

    The main issue on Question Time was tuition fees, with a most telling intervention by a lady who reported that she had decided not to go to university because she could not afford the fees. Against this all of the protestations of the politicians were so much flatulence.

  2. […] 16, 2010 Why Lord Browne?  Why not Bob Crowe?  I know which one I would trust to come up with a decent education policy.  […]

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