Philosophers united against cuts

Students and academics meet at Institute of Contemporary Arts to discuss university department closu

It was only a matter of time before the protests of 1968 were alluded to in the Nash Room at the ICA yesterday evening. After an academic year that has brought mounting opposition to cuts in higher education, an impassioned crowd of students and academics from across the country had convened at the arts centre for a debate -- "Who's afraid of philosophy?" -- to discuss how to oppose department closures.

Since January, when £2.5bn worth of cuts was mooted, joint student-staff protests have been staged at the University of Sussex, at King's College London and at the University of Westminster, all of whose humanities departments have borne the brunt of attempts at savings, with philosophy departments made to feel particularly vulnerable.

This month, plans to axe the highly regarded philosophy department at Middlesex -- one of the most successful in the university -- prompted a 12-day student occupation of the Trent Park campus. Among those expressing their support for the campaign were Alain Badiou, Judith Butler, Slavoj Žižek and Noam Chomsky.

Last night -- five days after the students were evicted from the building following a high court injunction -- Professor Alexander Garcia Düttmann of Goldsmiths, University of London, warned that the protests at Middlesex represented much wider discontent with a managerial culture that forces researchers to prove their worth in quantitative and economic terms.

"Many of us are fed up with the way in which philosophy, the humanities and higher education more generally is treated by university managers and administrators . . . Whatever [subject] cannot account for its measurable success and whatever does not bring in money has no longer a place in the university, we are told.

"[The idea] that every aspect of academic life, a life now determined by the imperative of getting external funding, can and should be assessed and monitored . . . is a fiction that leads to arbitrary measures, as can be gauged by the decision to close a centre for philosophy that was actually successful according to the adopted criteria," Düttmann said.

In the view of Peter Osborne, senior lecturer in philosophy at Middlesex (who stands to lose his job), closures are being made at the behest of "new university managers and administrators [who] are the organic products of a new capitalist regime" in higher education. And philosophy, "functioning emblematically for the open-endedness of experimental research and unmeasurable quality of intellectual inquiry", has become "the temporary resting place of a capitalistic dread".

Professor Alex Callinicos of King's College London praised the co-operation between academic staff and students in organising the protests. Nina Power of Roehampton University urged campaign organisers to probe funding bodies such as the HEFCE themselves.

"Academics live in daily morbid fear of not getting research grants and approval from these bodies," she said. "We need to find out who makes up them, what they stand for, and why on earth they are unelected."

Readers can follow the ongoing campaign to save the Middlesex philosophy department here.

UPDATE: Good news for academic staff at King's College London, who, after staging a walkout this month, have been told there will no longer be compulsory redundancies in the School of Arts and Humanities.

In a document accessible via the university website, university administrators said: "At the end of the Consultation period, the School has identified the savings required by means other than compulsory redundancies; these include a range of voluntary severance packages, relocations, early retirements, non-replacement of retired staff, and the replacement of retiring staff with early-career academics."

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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.