By Martin McQuillan
The pithily entitled ‘Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance’ was published on Tuesday. In short, for those not parochial enough to be concerned by this, it was a committee set up by the previous Labour government, chaired by ex-BP boss John Browne (as one of the many sinecures offered to him, including Chair of the Tate Trustees, in compensation for the homophobia that chased him out of the oil industry, otherwise it would have been him and not Tony Hayward taking the rap for the Deepwater Horizon disaster) charged with considering future funding arrangements for universities and their students in England. The headlines from the report are that 1. The current cap of £3,290 on student tuition fees should be scrapped in favour of potentially unlimited fees set by universities themselves, 2. The current teaching grant distributed to English universities should be cut by £3.2billion with a 100% reduction for the arts, humanities and social sciences. In effect Browne’s committee (which included the Chief Executive of Standard Chartered PLC, the Head of McKinsey, and two Vice-Chancellors) has at a stroke privatised the arts and humanities in England. The committee recommends that the state should no longer have any investment in these areas and that private individuals who wish to pursue such things at their own cost should pay for them.
It is hard to know where to begin with this. There are no workarounds, no accommodations to be made, no temporary crisis to be endured; this is the nuclear option, total and irreversible wipeout. Now, there is a difference between the publication of a so-called ‘Independent’ Review (Browne has now moved on to his next job advising the coalition government on Whitehall job cuts, and his review has clearly been hijacked to feed the ideological attack on the state currently being pursued by an administration that no one voted for) and how it translates into legislation through the torturous process of what Washington would call ‘the pork barrel politics’ of buying off a Lib Dem back bench revolt. However, there would seem to be little to be hoped for in this regard. What is striking here is not that higher education (and the arts, humanities and social sciences in particular) have been targeted but that they have been the first thing to be attacked and in such a spectacularly ruthless manner. The calculation must be that the news agenda will have moved on next week when everyone is more concerned by the fate of ‘useful things’ like hospitals and fire stations in the Comprehensive Spending Review. And of course, if the ConDems cannot be bothered to fund humanities teaching any more there is very little prospect that they will continue to fund humanities research. ‘The future has been cancelled’, as Graham Allen, writing in the context of Irish cuts, put it recently.
Most people will blame the Conservatives; the Conservatives will hope that most people will blame the LibDems. I do not blame either; I expect nothing else from the guardians of class privilege and their unscrupulous carpet-bagging associates. The people who are to blame for this are the Vice-Chancellors of UK universities (with one honourable exception) who have consistently pressed for an increase in tuition fees in order to maximise the return to their institutions. Tuition Fees used to be called ‘top-up fess’ because they were additional to state funding which had fallen behind the real costs of running universities. However, the short-termism of Vice-Chancellors failed to understand that as soon as fees were introduced the university sector would not only lose its place in the queue for, but its claim entirely on, the public purse. The Browne Report hits Vice-Chancellors with a sucker punch: you can have unlimited fees but you can no longer have public funding.
While science and ‘priority’ subjects will continue to receive a teaching grant the rest of us must fend for ourselves. The people who will be most affected by this is not so-called ‘teaching-focussed universities’ but those so-called ‘elite’, so-called ‘research-intensive’, so-called ‘universities’. Dear reader, I spent 10 years directing research in a Russell Group university, I know how much mediocrity there is out there, wrapped in snobbery and shrouded in utterly bogus ‘missions groups’ which allow ministers to divide and rule the sector through its own vanity. If there is no public funding and no funding council to distribute it then there will be no cap on student numbers for institutions. Humanities departments in ‘elite universities’ will only survive by piling students high and servicing them at low costs. The Browne Report does not set them free to compete with the world’s best universities, it impoverishes them and turns all of the arts, humanities and social sciences in England into teaching-focussed universities. Lets not even get started on what it means for the Art Schools and monotechnics; all advances made in funding of the humanities over the last thirteen years have been put into sharp and irrecoverable reverse.
I could make a defence of the worth of the humanities but if legislators cannot recognize their value from the outset then no words here will persuade them. Nor will I make the obvious case for the social mobility afforded by a university education—as if a Conservative-lead administration gave two figs for the education of the lower orders. However, the fundamental reason to oppose tuition fees of any kind is that those who benefited from a free higher education as a democratic right should not when in government (as a result of that free higher education) tell future generations that they must now take on mortgage-sized debts to pay for the same privilege. How this is ‘progressive and fair’, as our politicians like to say, is a mystery. One should not just resist this situation; it has to be refused utterly. Distracted by the chimera of RAE results and QAA inspections, academics in the United Kingdom have not had the best track record in saying no to government in the last twenty years, but if this does not rouse us nothing ever will. And if it can happen in England it will without doubt be rolled out across Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Europe, and Australia. This is a culture war in which critical thought is threatened with extinction. It is time to stop writing the monograph on the footnotes of Henry James, drop the myth of ‘research’ and ‘teaching’ institutions, and do something quickly to save everything any academic worthy of the name holds dear.