Saturday, 13 November 2010

London Calling - a view from the USA

UCU (University and College Union) and NUS (National Union of Students) jointly organised a national demo, 'Fund Our Future: Stop Education Cuts' on Wednesday 10 November 2010, in central London.

DEFEND the ARTS and HUMANITIES is very happy to republish the below article London Calling by Michael Meranze, Professor of History at UCLA since 2006. Meranze received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley and taught in the history department at the University of California, San Diego between 1989 and 2006. Between 1987 and 1989, he was an Assistant Professor of History at the College of William and Mary and a fellow of the Institute of Early American History and Culture. Meranze has received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Council of Learned Societies among others.

The article was originally published by Remaking the University on November 1, 2010. Thanks to that website for allowing us to repost.

London calling to the imitation zone
Forget it, brother, an' go it alone
London calling upon the zombies of death
Quit holding out-and draw another breath

-- The Clash

If Albany’s language departments are the canaries in the coal mine of public education [the university is ending all admissions to programs in French, Italian, Russian, classics and Theater], the ongoing efforts to restructure higher education funding in [the UK] are the coal mine collapsing. As James Vernon and Stefan Collini have argued, the Browne Report and the Coalition Government’s Spending Priorities Review, if implemented, will mark an effective end of public higher education in England. England’s government is now proposing to shift the fiscal basis of higher education from the public to the individual student and enshrine the notion that higher education is primarily a private not a public good. Moreover, the Browne Report assumes drastic cutbacks, if not outright elimination, of public subsidies for teaching “non-priority” courses while maintaining some targeted support for STEM fields. Under the sign of fiscal necessity, Browne and the coalition government are attempting to subordinate higher education even more to the perceived short-term needs of business under the sign of appealing to the desires of students. Any notion of the centrality of the transmission of a critical tradition in higher education has been lost.

At the heart of the Browne report lie a series of assumptions. First, that public funding is, and must be, reduced in the higher education sector. Second, that the primary good to come out of higher education is a private one—the increase in economic earnings for graduates. Third, that while there is some public good in higher education, that public good resides primarily in ensuring that higher education ensures the adequate training of a sufficient number of people in certain strategic fields (primarily health care, STEM and some languages). And finally, that the success or failure of higher education is most convincingly displayed through its role in the comparative economic development of the nation.

The fundamental proposal of the Browne report is to shift funding from the government to the student. The Browne report envisions both a drastic reduction and redirection of public support: eliminating block grants to universities in the context of an overall decline in government funding of higher education. This loss of funding, the report admits, can only be compensated for by a substantial rise in tuition. Lord Browne, indeed, imagines that tuition in England will have to more than double simply to match the funds loss through government cutbacks. In reality there is no effective limit on the rise in tuition in the future. In order to make this possible, the Browne report proposes a simplified student loan system with the government making available loans upfront and graduates paying them back over a 30 year period at a fixed percentage (with certain thresholds, adjustments for inflation, and interest fees). Any money not paid back after 30 years (due to low income of the graduate) would be forgiven by the government. Browne rejects the notion of private funding for the loans because it is his aim to make the loans available to all students at a government controlled rate. Within certain limits, higher education would be run as a market powered by the indebtedness of students.

In return for higher tuition, students, Browne promises, will gain greater power and choice over their education. Improved advising and more transparency will allow students to choose their studies more effectively. “Students will control a much larger proportion of the investment in higher education. The will decide where the funding should go; and institutions will compete to get it. As students will be paying more than in the current system, they will demand more in return.” (29) But it remains unclear what this advice or these choices amount to in the end. The Browne report appears to assume that the key to student choice should be better advice about the immediate needs of the job market and likely wage-results of different courses of studies. While the report does include some recommendations for increasing universities’ commitment to teaching (particularly in transparency about contact time and information on who actually teaches courses) in the last analysis its notion of career and course choices is an economic and business one. Universities will succeed in their jobs when they better align their graduates with business demand and counseling will succeed when it makes it clear to students what the economic risks of their choices are.

The smoke and mirrors are impressive. As James Vernon reminds us, despite the rhetoric of freedom, students will now “be forced to pay for it through the sort of debt-financing that governments across the world now consider so inappropriate for themselves.” In the name of national austerity students will now be forced to increase their own debts, enmeshing themselves in what may be a 30 year indenture to the state.

But the problems are more than economic—the Browne report manages to dispatch without a second thought any notion that critical debate and reasoned judgments are of public value. Browne would have almost all public funding for the arts and humanities eliminated. His contempt for these fields, though implicit, is nearly complete. As Stefan Collini points out Browne can only imagine either rational individual choice or heavy-handed state body in control of education. As Collini puts it, “It is fascinating, and very revealing, to see how Browne’s unreal confidence in the rationality of subjective consumer choice is matched by his lack of belief in reasoned argument and judgment.” Getting an education is like getting a car; one just has to figure out the correct price point and what color you want. Browne, in effect, is denying the very essence of education—the fact that it can change the student as well as provide new knowledge and that it does so by exposing the student to debate and argument that s/he might not have considered before.

All of these proposals will strike those in the US as familiar. After all, the strategy of transferring public funding from institutions to students began here in the 1980s. Funding by the states has been declining for decades, the insistence that only the STEM fields and medicine are truly important is a common occurrence; and the claims that a high fee, high loan system can ensure access despite enormously rising student debt remains the conventional wisdom amongst higher education leaders. 

To be sure, there are differences. For one thing while we have been facing the decline of public support in a death of a thousand cuts, the English government aims to do it in one savage slash. For another, US higher education is far more diverse—the fate of public universities are only part of our puzzle; in England the death of the public university is an effective destruction of higher education as the English have known it. That may be the reason why the public response on the part of higher education leaders has been so much more forceful than our own and why a large protest [took place] in London [on] November 10.

But in the end it is the commonalities that are most striking. The Coalition's plans cuts to higher education are joined with cuts to social services and housing support; here Arnold has insisted on reducing (in some cases eliminating) support for the most needy. The drive for austerity has its roots in a political mindset left over from the 1980s—when in the face of the downturn of the Anglo-American capitalist systems, the assault on government and the notion of a public realm was proposed as a solution for the economy. Today, we can see the even more devastating downturn produced in large part by those 1980s policies. But as we see daily in the US and in more dramatic fashion in England, that assault is once more being trotted out as the solution to our problems.

Perhaps that is why Browne and his comrades have so little faith in the humanities and social sciences; they treat the historical record with evident scorn. We cannot do more than express our solidarity with those in the England. But we need to do at least that; and we should refuse to follow the Brownes and their compatriots in the US in their selective remembrance of the history of the last several decades. Focusing on STEM as the answer attempts to treat our economic ills as a technical problem and ignores the policy and historical roots of the economy's collapse.  If we don’t find effective ways to refuse their history we will be unable to refuse the future they seek to create.


  1. To add a technical question to Michael's excellent comment, has anyone done work on cross-subsidies in the UK, in which a university redistributes revenues according to institutional priorities rather than by headcounts and major enrollments (standard practice in the US)? I ask because in the US the STEM fields are not financially viable without cross-subsidies drawn from the fields whose teaching grant is supposed to be cut in the UK. Perhaps some alliances could be forged on this basis.

  2. It is standard for such cross subsidies to exist, typically between STEM and non-STEM subjects, but not uniformly. Very frequently, the university accounting practices seek to disguise this. University accounts that show this would not be systematically available. However, the attempt to introduce full economic costing for research has meant that universities have to assign their activities and income streams in order to be able to charge indirect costs. This is all reported in The Wakeham Review.

  3. Here is a link to the Wakeham Review (2008):

    And to an interview with Bill Wakeham:

    This article might supplement Chris's point: (though from the outside I have no sense of the internal politics of this at UC).

    I don't know of any specific work on this, but remember there being some discussion of it during the Middlesex Philosophy campaign, less with regard to STEM and rather addressed to Business:

    'Some of the university’s larger and more vocational teaching areas, such as Business, obviously generate more income than its smaller humanities subjects. Management claims that Philosophy is ‘subsidised’ by other subjects, however, are not correct. In reality, the actual subsidy goes in the opposite direction. In addition to covering its portion of the management and administrative costs of its School (in our case, the School of Arts and Education), a subject group at Middlesex University is expected to make a ‘contribution’ to the ‘centre’. The management currently demands that a subject area contribute at least 55% of its gross income to the centre (and although such contributions are often measured in different ways, this is considerably more than most other universities demand). As it stands, by what they call ‘the credit count’ method of calculation, the Philosophy & Religious Studies subject group already makes a 53% ‘contribution’ (Philosophy’s contribution on its own stands at 45%). Using the figures projected for recruitment by the university’s Admissions department, if our programmes had remained open then the contribution from Philosophy & Religious Studies would have risen to 59% for 2010-11 (with Philosophy on its own at 53%). From 2003-2009, moreover, a significant portion of Middlesex Philosophy’s research income was actually diverted to support research in Business and Management, which performed poorly in RAE2001.'


    In any case, apart from the complex accounting practices (made more so through the full economic costing, distribution around institutional 'cost centres', and etc.), it seems to me one major issue is the way budgets are framed discursively in public commentary (here, as with the wider government spending review) -- it sounds such a believable narrative, if you ignore the wider history and context, that the state has simply 'run out' of money and that the poor, superfluous humanities and social sciences are a drain on what are presumed to be the big money-making sciences. Teasing out and explaining the nuances should probably be a priority, if we can find spaces in which to do it -- not least of all to educate ourselves and our colleagues. I could certainly stand to understand this better.

  4. An important amendment, brought to my attention by John Holmwood: the Wakeham Report in question above is in fact 'Financial Sustainability and Efficiency in Full Economic Costing of Research in UK Higher Education Institutions' (2010). It has direct relevance for the Browne Review and etc., and a much clearer statement on the issue of cross-subsidizing.

    It can be found at:

    Apologies for any confusion.