Finishing schools for gilded youth?

Arts and humanities after the Browne review.

It is hard to escape the worry that the arts, humanities and, almost certainly, many of the social sciences face a bleaker future in British higher education if Lord Browne's report – "Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education in England" – is implemented. Browne isn't explicit about this but, on page 25 of the report, we find a chilling sentence:

In our proposals, there will be scope for government to withdraw public investment through Hefce [the Higher Education Funding Council for England] from many courses to contribute to wider reductions in public spending; there will remain a vital role for public investment to support priority courses and the wider benefits they create.

The priority courses are listed as medicine, science and engineering. The arts, humanities and social sciences are on their own and will have to support themselves from student-fee income, research grants and so-called "QR funding" – allocated by government on the basis of past research performance.

Insofar as there is public support for higher education in Britain, it is overwhelmingly for teaching. That is the perception of what we do, as many an irritated academic knows from the assumption of friends and relatives that we are "free" for the entire summer. So it is unlikely that government support, once withdrawn from teaching, will continue to back research. We in the humanities may soon depend almost entirely for our living on the number of students prepared to pay full-cost fees of £6,000 or maybe more.

I did some sums on the assumption that my institution (a Russell Group member) would charge at the top end of the scale and that about a third of the income would be available to pay academic staff wages. It looks like we (philosophy) would be OK. But things get much worse if you are at an institution that isn't able to fill its places while charging the maximum or if you work in a subject – one of the performance-based disciplines, say – where there are significant equipment costs.

Even those of us who do survive (and I'm not feeling complacent) are likely to find that the ecology of our subjects will change if students from working-class backgrounds are priced out of degree courses at the most expensive universities and the surviving, cheaper institutions no longer put the humanities on the menu (witness the recent axing of philosophy at Middlesex). Will the remaining humanities departments increasingly function as finishing schools for the gilded youth? Will there continue to be strong demand for courses on distributive justice from our residual well-heeled students? Or will they prefer more aesthetics instead? No doubt there will be bursaries and scholarships to compensate but one worries that these will make more of a cosmetic than a material difference.

On the other hand, I have the sense that some of my colleagues will be somewhat relieved by Lord Browne's report. This is understandable. In the current climate, many academics fear for their jobs and the gradual erosion of state support has been tipping many university managements into cuts, hiring freezes and the threat of compulsory redundancies. There's also a widespread feeling that the status quo involves an unwarranted subsidy to the already advantaged children of the wealthy at a time when the most disadvantaged in society are facing really tough prospects.

On top of this, there is resentment at the Liberal Democrats, whose pledge on tuition fees was little more than an opportunistic pander to a sense of middle-class entitlement (their coming volte-face will, at least, be consistent in its sacrifice of principle to advantage). Not surprisingly, many think that if higher education (at least the elite part of it) is put on a more secure financial basis, we'll be free to concentrate on the things we do best: scholarship, research and teaching. Let politicians worry about social justice.

The assumptions behind Lord Browne's selection of "priority subjects" are, to say the least, open to question. He sees science, engineering and "strategically important" languages as being the residual subjects worthy of taxpayer support. (Presumably, "strategically important language" is code for Chinese or Arabic.) The claim is that, in difficult times, "we" should fund those areas of study important for economic growth: "we" need to produce more physicists, chemists and engineers than our rivals and fewer philosophers, sociologists and historians.

One imagines that Lord Browne, as a senior business executive, would be appalled if the government started "picking winners" in a reversion to old-style industrial policy but, when it comes to education, he's not content to leave it to the market for fear that the consumer might sign up for media studies. The "strategic importance" notion would have more credibility if the current crop of graduates in the Stem subjects were actually finding jobs as production-boosting scientists. But often that doesn't seem to be so. As it is, in recent years, many young physicists and mathematicians – perhaps despairing of employment in the UK's industrial sector – seem to have ended up in the City, where they devised ever more complex financial instruments whose social and economic ramifications they didn't understand and whose consequences we are all having to live with. So much for strategic contribution to growth!

By and large, the response of the humanities to the government's emphasis on relevance, transferable skills and providing what employers need (or think they need) has been a rather desperate and demeaning attempt to show that we also contribute to the global competitiveness of "UK plc" (or whatever ugly term might be in vogue this week). Well, of course we do do our bit and it isn't hard to show that arts graduates can also shine in business and the professions, script clever adverts and make acclaimed cartoons.

Still, none of us really believes that the value of the arts and humanities lies most centrally in their economic usefulness. We can put other instrumental arguments, too, of course, about citizenship, participation and the value to society of critical reflection (not that the coalition government wants much of that at the moment).

But the value of the arts and humanities isn't confined to just one or two dimensions, economic or political. Rather, the study of history, philosophy, music or poetry provides students with an enrichment of experience, a sense of who they are and what the possibilities might be for them as human beings.

Naturally, the humanities aren't unique in this. Science and mathematics, too, are challenging and liberating. Different things interest different people but the study of any subject at a higher level ought to give people both an enhanced sense of their own powers and a glimpse of dimensions of value and achievement other than enhanced consumption.

What people learn at university might not fit them for the modern world and might not make them compliant employees of some corporation. "Aspiration" is a popular word among politicians but perhaps they don't want to awaken too much of it in the sons and daughters of ordinary people.

Chris Bertram is professor of social and political philosophy at Bristol University. He blogs at Crooked Timber.

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Katy Perry’s new song is not so much Chained to the Rhythm as Chained to a Black Mirror episode

The video for “Chained to the Rhythm” is overwhelmingly pastel and batshit crazy. Watch out, this satire is sharp!

If you’ve tuned into the radio in the last month, you might have heard Katy Perry’s new song, “Chained to the Rhythm”, a blandly hypnotic single that’s quietly, creepingly irresistible.

If you’re a really attuned listener, you might have noticed that the lyrics of this song explore that very same atmosphere. “Are we crazy?” Perry sings, “Living our lives through a lens?”

Trapped in our white picket fence
Like ornaments
So comfortable, we’re living in a bubble, bubble
So comfortable, we cannot see the trouble, trouble
Aren’t you lonely?
Up there in utopia
Where nothing will ever be enough
Happily numb

The chorus muses that we all “think we’re free” but are, in fact, “stumbling around like a wasted zombie, yeah.” It’s a swipe (hehe) at social media, Instagram culture, online dating, whatever. As we all know, modern technology is Bad, people who take photos aren’t enjoying the moment, and glimpses other people’s Perfect Lives leave us lonely and empty. Kids these days just don’t feel anything any more!!!

The video for this new song was released today, and it’s set in a (get this) METAPHORICAL AMUSEMENT PARK. Not since Banky’s Dismaland have we seen such cutting satire of modern life. Walk with me, through Katy Perry’s OBLIVIA.

Yes, the park is literally called Oblivia. Get it? It sounds fun but it’s about oblivion, the state of being unaware or unconscious, i.e. the state we’re all living in, all the time, because phones. (I also personally hope it’s a nod to Staffordshire’s own Oblivion, but cannot confirm if Katy Perry has ever been on the Alton Towers classic steel roller coaster.)

The symbol of the park is a spaced-out gerbil thing, because, aren’t we all caged little hairy beings in our own hamster wheels?! Can’t someone get us off this never-ending rat race?!

We follow Katy as she explores the park – her wide eyes take in every ride, while her peers are unable to look past the giant iPads pressed against their noses.

You, a mindless drone: *takes selfies with an iPad*
Katy Perry, a smart, engaged person: *looks around with actual human eyes, stops to smell the roses*

She walks past rides, and stops to smell the roses – and the pastel-perfect world is injected with a dose of bright red reality when she pricks her finger on a thorn. Cause that’s what life really is, kids! Risk! At least she FEELS SOMETHING.

More like the not-so-great American Dream, am I right?!

So Katy (wait, “Rose”, apparently) takes her seat on her first ride – the LOVE ME ride. Heteronormative couples take their seats against either a blue heart or a pink one, before being whizzed through a tunnel of Facebook reaction icons.

Is this a comment on social media sexism, or a hint that Rose is just too damn human for your validation station? Who knows! All we can say for sure is that Katy Perry has definitely seen the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive”:

Now, we see a whole bunch of other rides.

Wait time: um, forever, because the human condition is now one of permanent stasis and unsatisfied desires, duh.

No Place Like Home is decorated with travel stamps and catapults two of the only black people in the video out of the park. A searing comment on anti-immigrant rhetoric/racism? Uh, maybe?

Meanwhile, Bombs Away shoots you around like you’re in a nuclear missile.

War: also bad.

Then everyone goes and takes a long drink of fire water (?!?!) at Inferno H2O (?!?!) which is also a gas station. Is this about polluted water or petrol companies or… drugs? Or are we just so commercialised even fire and water are paid-for privileges? I literally don’t know.

Anyway, Now it’s time for the NUCLEAR FAMILY SHOW, in 3D, no less. Rose is last to put her glasses on because, guess what? She’s not a robot. The show includes your typical 1950s family ironing and shit, while hamsters on wheels run on the TV. Then we see people in the rest of theme park running on similar wheels. Watch out! That satire is sharp.

Skip Marley appears on the TV with his message of “break down the walls to connect, inspire”, but no one seems to notice accept Rose, and soon becomes trapped in their dance of distraction.

Rose despairs amidst the choreography of compliance.

Wow, if that didn’t make you think, are you even human? Truly?

In many ways – this is the Platonic ideal of Katy Perry videos: overwhelmingly pastel, batshit crazy, the campest of camp, yet somehow walking the fine line between self-ridicule and terrifying sincerity. It might be totally stupid, but it’s somehow still irresistible.

But then I would say that. I’m a mindless drone, stumbling around like a wasted zombie, injecting pop culture like a prescription sedative.

I’m chained…………. to the rhythm.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.