The double assault of the Browne Report and Wednesday’s Comprehensive Spending Review have understandably led to despair and anger among academics in the humanities and social sciences. The reasons are manifold: the apparent belief by Cable and Willetts that only science matters, an insidious privatisation of public institutions, further debt for those least able to pay, massive cuts in teaching budgets, and education as a source of funds for bank bail-outs, not to mention rank hypocrisy from men educated for free and now pulling up the ladder while telling the rest of us that their schemes are not only fair, but progressive too.
This knot of anxiety deserves some dissection. The necessity, in the midst of a storm, for calm and sober reflection. Such is my rhetorical mode today. The main strand of existing critique centres on the implications for inequality. Higher fees, under such an account, can only increase the unwillingness of the poorest to attend universities, and so transform them into bastions of privilege.
But this isn’t quite right.
The ultimate arbiters on all matters financial are pointing to an apparent slippage in our talk about this. Due to the proposals for thresholding both repayment and interest rates, the rich will “unambiguously” pay more than they do under the current system. Yes, student debt for a three year course is now expected to be £30,000 in total, but you have to get into the top 40% in terms of lifetime earnings before you pay back that much (assuming £7,000 fees). More strikingly, the Browne proposals appear to become more progressive the higher the fees charged, with almost 74% of graduates having some fees written off at the £12,000 level, but only 54% at the £6,000 level. (although this dodges the question of whether the current system is sufficiently fair to count as any kind of general arbiter of social justice). It turns out that Browne’s proposals may even be too bold for the coalition, since they encourage the ‘subsidisation’ of poorer universities by richer ones. Might the sheer scale of the numbers have a ‘psychological’ deterrent effect on the weak minds of the lower classes? Maybe. But then it’s far from clear that universities are much of a vector for social mobility anyway. We are important, and we must fight our corner, but the economic and political damage has largely been done by the time people enter our fabled ivory towers.
Graduate repayments with a £7,000 fee, under different discount rate assumptions [via IFS]
But fees are hardly the only thing at stake. What of research and teaching? Details remain vague, but if the social sciences are to be completely removed from government spending along with the humanities and arts, the dynamics of the last years can only be expected to accelerate. University rankings are driven by research excellence and, if given a free hand, we should expect the upper stratas of management to redirect as much as possible from the increased fees to small groups of research-intensive staff. Teaching will suffer through banally familiar mechanisms (more students per class, less resources for teaching, a higher work load on junior and PhD staff without proportional compensation). Talk of a ‘student-driven’ system will not change that. The informational asymmetries are too high, and the cache of university reputations too important, for even the most discerning of consumers.
The spectre of ‘privatisation’ remains similarly opaque. For some disciplines, the removal of government control may well be a boon. I, for one, would rather mortgage future research on British foreign-policy, counter-terrorism and development strategy to the nation’s discerning youngsters than to the whims of Hague, May, Mitchell and their advisers. There is no straight-forward answer to whether the state or students should control education, although the habitually neglected prospect that academics might do it themselves seems a better option than both. Far more aggravating are the heavy hints towards a confirmation of business ontology in the university system. Browne speaks tellingly of producing “the most effective mix of skills to meet business needs” and statements from Ministers regarding UK science have trod the same rhetorical path. But who is being taken over here? The protected STEM subjects, now more integrated into state funding? Or those of us destined for the cold of the market? Perhaps social research will now be heavily dependent on the largesse of private benefactors. But this is by no means obvious, and there is much to be said against a smooth conflation of non-state funding with the interests of capital.
In short, we are being tempted by a positional trap. Since the coalition’s cuts are aimed at universities as they currently stand, the impulse is to defend them, to engage in a willing identification with the-system-soon-to-be-destroyed. But universities have already established themselves as the frontispieces for the expanding inequality of the last decades. The changes suggested by Browne and the government clearly change some of the grounds on which the settlement between universities and the state is based. But this does not mean that the key problems have changed. Should we not see the central lines of contention as being where they’ve always been? First, in understanding the university as an aspect of the social whole, which means contesting the ways in which it can reproduce and enforce privilege. Second, in establishing what counts as a valid knowledge practice and who gets to measure it. Third, in the power relations within the academy itself, whether in the relationship between academics and other, more marginalised, staff, or in the struggles over who gets to control the machinery of knowledge itself.
A political skirmish remains. Will Parliament pass the measures? How will Clegg and Cable manage the leftist deviations of MPs and party members? We cannot but follow this with close attention. But the framing for the devastation of higher education will only be guaranteed if we merely affirm the status quo, a ‘worst-of-all-worlds’ happily to be killed off.
UPDATE (23 Oct): See also K-Punk’s rather rousing diagnosis of Bullingdonian bait-and-switch, a kind of companion piece to several of our recent posts:
Cuddly Vince Cable’s grinning excuse for the backtracking on student fees was a masterclass in capitalist realism, as he practically said, “well, that’s what happens when you get into power – you give up your principles.” (Cable is increasingly looking like a villain from a John Grisham flick, the avuncular eminence grise whose charm lures you into the firm, before being revealed to be a sinister embezzling fraudster.)
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