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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 So it is unlikely that government support, once withdrawn from teaching, will continue to back research.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.