Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Looking back at 2010, Getting Ready for 2011

 

Lest we forget... DEFEND the ARTS and HUMANITIES gears up for more campaigning in the New Year by posting links to two invaluable items: an activist video -- above -- that may serve to remind us just how angry many in our societies are about badly-broken, politicians' promises, and an anger-inducing article -- below -- that deftly traces some of the ideological origins of the Higher Education financing reforms of recent times.

Indeed, Simon Head's cool-headed essay for the New York Review of Books is one of the best analyses of the neo-liberal attacks on higher education to have yet appeared. It makes for chilling but essential reading.  

DEFEND the ARTS and HUMANITIES will be back in the New Year!


The British universities, Oxford and Cambridge included, are under siege from a system of state control that is undermining the one thing upon which their worldwide reputation depends: the caliber of their scholarship. The theories and practices that are driving this assault are mostly American in origin, conceived in American business schools and management consulting firms. They are frequently embedded in intensive management systems that make use of information technology (IT) marketed by corporations such as IBM, Oracle, and SAP. They are then sold to clients such as the UK government and its bureaucracies, including the universities. This alliance between the public and private sector has become a threat to academic freedom in the UK, and a warning to the American academy about how its own freedoms can be threatened. (Read the rest of this article here)
With thanks to SG for the latter link.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Valuing the Humanities: Nussbaum, Ladyman, Rees, Smith and Lawson at the LSE

Valuing The Humanities by London School Of Economics on Mixcloud
To listen to the presentations listed below, please click on the "Play" symbol above. Be warned of a small problem with microphone feedback about two minutes into this recording - the audio problems are quickly resolved.
"Valuing the Humanities" was a panel discussion, organised by the British Philosophical Association and the Forum for European Philosophy, which took place at the London School of Economics on December 17, 2010, with:
  •  James Ladyman,Professor of Philosophy, University of Bristol; co-editor, British Journal of the Philosophy of Science
  • Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics, University of Chicago
  • Lord Rees of Ludlow, President of the Royal Society, Astronomer Royal, Master of Trinity College Cambridge
  • Richard Smith, Former editor, British Medical Journal; Director, Ovations Institute

"Facts on fees and the fallacies of ‘fairness’" by James Vernon

A photo from the "I wouldn't be here!" (if tuition fees were raised) photo campaign by students supporting the University of Kent Occupation, the last UK student occupation standing and intending to keep going through the festive season. Please support the students in any way you can. Here are links to their Facebook page and Twitter feed


DEFEND the ARTS and HUMANITIES republishes James Vernon's article "Facts on fees and the fallacies of ‘fairness’", first published at openDemocracy.net on December 19, 2010:


What is the real nature of the government's legislation on higher education; what will be the consequences; and what relationship does it have to reducing the deficit? An important exchange on this issue is taking place here, between Alan Finlayson and Tony Curzon Price. Now a striking contribution with strong claims has been submitted to OurKingdom.

The Coalition’s narrow victory in the vote on university tuition fees will surely not mark the end of the debate or of student protests. And nor should it.  Despite the Labour Party’s eleventh hour adoption of a position mostly intended to embarrass the Liberal Democrats the level of debate in the House of Commons mainly served to emphasize the poverty of our current parliamentary politics. A greater diversity of opinion and sophistication of argument would be apparent in almost every student union debating chamber.  As Ministers ignore or seek to criminalize protesters they ingeniously insist that they will listen to arguments.  So here are eight facts about fees and their fairness that we have heard remarkably little about.
  1. The cut of 80% - with 100% in art, humanities and social sciences – for teaching in the higher education sector is considerably in excess of cuts in other areas of government expenditure.  It is supposed to a save a total of £2.9bn for the exchequer, a paltry figure when compared to other areas of government expenditure.  In the league tables so beloved of our current generation of politicians it places Britain at the bottom of its OECD competitors in terms of levels of public investment in higher education.
  2. This draconian cut will not save money for the exchequer in the short term. Any saving will have to wait until students in the class of 2012 pay back their loans which The Independent reports even the Department of Business, Skills and Innovation expects only 25% of them to do so.  So the supposed cut will actually initially increase the size of the deficit. Indeed, the government will need to borrow over £5bn more to provide the initial loans – even though like any good loan shark they’ll be borrowing at rates lower than the 4-5% they’ll be charging students. It is, as David Willets has acknowledged, essentially an accounting trick to enable the government to make sub-prime loans to students with no guaranteed income.  Experience in the US, which remains the government’s model of private provision, suggests that eventually the loans themselves will be privatized to make the system sustainable for the exchequer. 
  3. The Coalition insists that most universities will charge £6,000 but, as the independent Higher Education Policy Institute has demonstrated, to survive let alone succeed many will quickly reach for the £9,000 limit.  For the £6000 fee, double what most students currently pay, universities will actually receive less  (about £1300 for most degree programmes).  In any market, even in the artificially created one for higher education, it is unlikely that students will be prepared to pay more for less. While the privileged will remain able to speculate on their futures by investing in premier league degrees, the rest will be forced to pay for second class degrees. As English universities lust for more income to survive or compete globally, and the current fee structure of £6,000 represents a cut in their funding, it is only a matter of time before Vice Chancellors start lobbying government to remove the £9,000 upper limit. At this point it is likely that the government will turn to private loan companies and cheaper private universities with online provision to help fund an increasingly variegated system with new third class degrees that maintain a fig leaf of access while privilege prospers.
  4. While the Coalition has been at pains to make £6,000 not £9,000 the headline figure this is not the real cost of a university education, just the tuition cost for one year. At most campuses accommodation, subsistence and learning needs are around £8,000 and in London they are higher still. The real cost of a university education is therefore close to a total of £50,000. Very few people from low-income families, despite all the last minute additions to the current bill, will be able to countenance such an investment in their future.
  5. Not all graduates will benefit from speculating on a university education as a private investment by earning substantially higher earnings over their lifetimes – particularly those in the arts and mature part-time students.  And then there are those who drop out.  Again experience in the US suggests that as fees rise and students work other jobs to help offset their loans drop-out rates rise. There is no recognition that university graduates, let alone those who do not graduate, are a diverse group with different life and career trajectories.  Even though these students will only have to repay their loans if their incomes exceed £21,000 many will face a full thirty years of repayment that will surely also negatively impact their ability to raise mortgages and become home-owners.
  6. One of the biggest fallacies of the current debate is not just the assumption that only graduates benefit from their higher education but that conversely public investment should only be restricted to those areas of social life that are truly collective and universal in provision.  This is nonsense.  If higher education has become a private good because not all of the population benefit from it then we should follow this logic in to other areas – like unemployment benefit.  Can we really imagine or countenance a system in which unemployment benefit is considered a private good delivered only by way of loans that have to be paid back?
  7. We should have no time for the old and familiar argument that there is no alternative.  The graduate tax is a fairer tax on prospective earnings than the proposed system and has been dismissed because the Coalition, and too many universities, insists that there is no way of cooking the books to make it reduce current government expenditure. Yet there are other alternatives.  With 80% of the public supporting a rise in expenditure on higher education an argument for its funding through increased taxation is there to be made by any political party that truly believes in social mobility and public investment in the knowledge economies of the twenty first century.   Given that no such mainstream political party currently exists we could at the very least call for a continuation of the same mixed economy of public and private funding by increasing top-up fees in the hundreds rather than the thousands to offset a cut of 10-20% sustained in other sectors.
  8. And, finally, as this vote has been rushed through in the wake of considerable public protests and unease, we should not accept the logic of acting quickly.  There is no state of emergency here. The Browne Report did indeed deliberate at length but its brief was narrow and its proposals have failed to win the support of anyone but the majority of Vice Chancellors. The future of higher education, and the future of our democracy are too important to be vandalized by poorly conceived and badly argued legislation. Vandalism does not just happen on the streets.
 
  1. This article is published by James Vernon, and openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it without needing further permission, with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. These rules apply to one-off or infrequent use.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

The humanities and the sciences depend on each other, so cutting humanities funding hurts the "hard" subjects too

Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, a vivid example of the cross-fertilization of art and science during the Renaissance.
DEFEND the ARTS and HUMANITIES republishes the below article by Darian Meacham, senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of the West of England. It first appeared at openDemocracy.net on December 17, 2010.
The UK educational reforms, with their utilitarian emphasis on Science and Engineering, demonstrate no understanding of what makes for a good science research environment. The meeting of speculative and experimental sciences, as well as other areas of the humanities like literature, creates a general atmosphere of creativity, intellectual tension, and reciprocal engagement. It is probably impossible to nail down this atmosphere in any exact terms, but most scientists (in the broadest sense of the word) have a sense of it; it exists as much in a general culture as in a specific domain of academic life.
The UK government has made staggering cuts in England’s university teaching budget, alongside cuts in research funding. The humanities have been particularly badly hit. The Browne review of higher education funding suggests that whatever remains of the funding for university teaching be funneled into ‘priority’ areas like business, engineering, and medicine. Universities are now responsible for raising the rest of the money needed to pay for teaching through increased tuition fees. However, university vice-chancellors have warned that tuition fees will not be enough to cover the funding gap, especially if there is a lag between the cuts and tuition rises. The feared result of these policies is that many humanities and basic sciences departments will be forced to close or radically downsize. There are many important issues and questions at stake here surrounding who should bear the cost of a world-class higher education and how. But these issues aside, one thing seems unequivocal, these cuts and recommendations for the distribution of the remaining funds are short-sighted and display a disturbing lack of understanding of the scientific enterprise as a whole and its contribution to our civilisation.

The sciences do not work in isolation from one another, but rather have always engaged in a continuous process of cross-fertilization. This is why, after decades of increasing specialization, there is renewed emphasis on interdisciplinarity. Since its beginnings, progress in the scientific endeavour as a whole has often proceeded in this manner. One need only think of Leonardo, Leibniz, or Goethe to see how this cross-fertilization, even within one mind, has stimulated great discoveries. As these thinkers demonstrated, research in the humanities is not divorced from the natural sciences; it simply operates in different registers. For example, the humanities may explain phenomena in terms of how they are experienced rather than in causal empirical terms. In doing so, fields like philosophy, psychology, and even literature can often be, in a sense, theoretically one step ahead of the natural sciences, especially in cognitive and neuroscience, and those areas related to the study of the senses; sniffing out clues and pathways—like scientific truffle pigs—which the natural sciences can follow-up with empirically verifiable causal explanation. This is certainly not their only value, but the humanities’ contribution to the overall development of the sciences should not be overlooked. Philosophy, especially, is best understood in relation to the great project of science as a whole: the investigation of the world by means of rationality. The sacrifice of the humanities at the altar of deficit reduction will be a blow to this project and to the society we have painstakingly built upon it.

This rather abstract story about science can be illustrated with some more examples. By exploring sense perception, researchers in perceptual psychology, cognitive science, and neurology are making wonderful progress towards being able to help people who have lost one or more of their senses compensate or re-adjust their sensory manifold so as to engage in many activities they otherwise might not have been able to (1,2,3,4,5,6). Some of this research was recently showcased on an episode of the BBC’s science program Horizon which featured scientists like Beau Lotto, whose own groundbreaking work on perception is an excellent example of how arts and sciences can stimulate one another, even within one lab. As I watched this program and marveled at some of the applications of this research, I noted that much of what I saw being concretely elaborated using modern technology like fMRI scans and hypersensitive cameras to track eye movement had already been theoretically elaborated within the sub-domain of philosophy that I work within, phenomenology. Philosophers like Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961) had already theorized the total integration of the senses, the importance of the ‘body-schema’ (a sort of plan that consciousness has of the body as it is lived as opposed to the actual empirical physical body object), the importance of the Gestalt whole to the perception and comprehension of individual objects, and had described a process whereby consciousness brings forth information from the past, without the individual being aware, to form our perception of the present. All of these things are now being empirically elaborated by natural scientists in an effort to unlock the mysteries of sensory perception. Merleau-Ponty’s seminal work, the Phenomenology of Perception, is filled with philosophical meditations on the kind of optical illusions that fascinate neurologists, cognitive scientists, and perceptual psychologists today (7). This should not be read as a plea for more attention to be paid to phenomenology (although I of course think that would be a great thing). Philosophers like Merleau-Ponty used the science of his day to investigate and criticize both philosophical and scientific paradigms, for example, behaviourism and cognitivism. They constantly referred to the most up to date science they could to make theoretical predictions that are now being tested and examined empirically. These philosophers, and many still living ones, would have loved to be in the lab alongside these cutting edge researchers in the natural sciences, comparing their findings and trying to push the science ever further.

Other examples of the way that science progresses in bits and pieces, but also as a whole endeavor that involves many different disciplines coming together, are not hard to find. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) was a French biologist and an early proponent of evolutionary theory who believed that phenotypic characteristics acquired during a lifetime could be passed down to successive generations of offspring. The mechanism of Lamarck’s theory of evolution has of course been abandoned with the development of the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis. Lamarck himself was much less sure of the mechanism of evolution than of the general validity of the idea of evolution in accordance with natural (not divine) laws, and probably would not have hesitated to revise his theory on the basis of Darwin’s findings and of discoveries in genetics. One place where Lamarckian ideas about evolution were kept alive was in the more esoteric regions of Freudian psychoanalysis. In his writing on religion, Freud proposed that there could be meaning structures active in an individual’s psychic life that were inherited through a ‘phylogenetic heritage’, meaning not just culturally passed down, but somehow also inherited through biological mechanism (8). Widely derided for ‘Lamarckianism’, Freud’s theory about the inheritance was dismissed. His defenders argued that he had been misunderstood and was not a Lamarckian after all.  But, what is interesting is that recent calls for a revision of Modern Evolutionary Synthesis have included research that brings Freud’s claims back into the picture, although in a drastically revised form. Psychologist Rachel Yehuda, for example, has produced findings which suggest that some forms of trauma may have an heritable epigenetic effect which interferes with the physiological capacity of offspring to deal with stress—pretty much what Freud would call a ‘phylogenetic heritage’ in psychic life (9,10,11,12). Researchers like Kevin Laland and those who work with him at the Laland Lab in St. Andrews University are also doing fascinating work in exploring the relation between human evolution and culture (13). This kind of cutting edge science is the fruit of a holistic understanding of science.  

It would be silly to suggest that Husserl, Freud, or Merleau-Ponty came up with the science before the scientists. For one thing, these philosophers and the natural scientists whose work relates to theirs are working largely in different scientific registers or vocabularies; the former aiming to investigate psychic and perceptual experience qua experience, the latter looking to uncover the causal and physiological mechanisms behind such experience. But I do think that the meeting of speculative and experimental sciences, as well as other areas of the humanities like literature, creates a general atmosphere of creativity, intellectual tension, and reciprocal engagement. It is probably impossible to nail down this atmosphere in any exact terms, but I think most scientists (in the broadest sense of the word) have a sense of it; it exists as much in a general culture as in a specific domain of academic life. It is within this kind of ‘rational milieu’ that different areas of the vast enterprise we call science can feed off of and push each other towards new discoveries, even when sometimes the findings at first seem quite outlandish and divorced from scientific rationality as it is now conceived (as is the case with Freud’s ‘phylogenetic heritage’).    

Lord Browne and the current UK government do not seem to think that this kind of research or the kind of teaching that will lead students and potentially future researchers into this kind of creative scientific thought is a ‘priority’. This narrow view of progress and rationality displays a frightening lack of comprehension of the best enlightenment thinking upon which the UK’s scientific, economic, cultural, and political strength was in large part built.        
  1. Corney D, Haynes JD, Rees G, Lotto RB. The Brightness of Color. PLoS One. 2009;4(3):e5091. Epub 2009 Mar 31
  2. Clarke R, Lotto RB. Visual processing of the bee innately encodes higher-order image statistics when the information is consistent with natural ecology. Vision Res. 2009 May;49(11):1455-64. Epub 2009 Mar 13;
  3. Kuhn G, Tatler BW. Misdirected by the gap: The relationship between inattentional blindness and attentional misdirection. Conscious Cogn. 2010 Oct 11.
  4. Kuhn G, Kourkoulou A, Leekam SR. How magic changes our expectations about autism. Psychol Sci. 2010 Oct 1; 21(10): 1487-93   
  5. Sagiv N, Ward J. Crossmodal interactions: lessons from synesthesia. Prog Brain Res. 2006; 155:259-7;
  6. Rosenblum, L.D. See What I’m Saying: The Extraordinary Powers of Our Five Senses. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY, 2009
  7. Cf, M. Merleau-Ponty. Phenomenology of Perception, C. Smith (trans.), London: Routledge Classics, 2002, pp. 6, 41.
  8. S. Freud, Moses and Monotheism in The Pelican Freud Library Volume 13: The Origins of Religion, ed. Albert Dickson, Middlesex: Penguin, 1985, p. 343
  9. Yehuda R, et al. Vulnerability to posttraumatic stress disorder in adult offspring of Holocaust survivors. Am J Psychiatry. 1998 Sep; 155(9): 1163-71
  10. Yehuda R, et al. Low cortisol and risk for PTSD in adult offspring of holocaust survivors. Am J Psychiatry. 2000 Aug; 157(8): 1252-9
  11. Yehuda R, et al. Transgenerational effects of posttraumatic stress disorder in babies of mothers exposed to the World Trade Center attacks during pregnancy. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2005 Jul; 90(7): 4115-8   
  12. Yehuda R, Bierer LM. The relevance of epigenetics to PTSD: Implications for the DSM-V. J Trauma Stress. 2009 Oct 7. [Epub ahead of print]    
  13. KN Laland, J Odling-Smee & S Myles. How culture shaped the human genome: Bringing genetics and the human sciences together. Nature Reviews Genetics 11: 137-148 doi:10.1038/nrg2734  
This article is published by Darian Meacham, and openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it without needing further permission, with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. These rules apply to one-off or infrequent use.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

David Willetts is trying to conjure away the dangers of higher education reform with the magic word 'choice' by Alan Finlayson

"Not like that - like that!"

- David Willetts pays homage to Tommy Cooper


DEFEND the ARTS and HUMANITIES republishes Alan Finlayson's article, below, which first appeared at openDemocracy.net on December 15, 2010

There are many different kinds of magic trick. Some require the use of cards; others balls and cups. But for all of them, one technique is the most important: misdirection. While your attention is fixed on the magician’s left hand, you don’t notice what is happening on the right. Of the many practitioners of such magic, David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science, is one of the best. As far as I am aware he doesn’t do card tricks. But he does do misdirection, making you look one way when the real trick is happening elsewhere.

Here is Willetts, speaking on BBC Newsnight, appearing to make many thousands of pounds disappear:
“There’s been several references during the programme to ‘paying the fees’. Of course they are not going to ‘pay the fees’. The taxpayer is going to provide the money for students, of course then to pass the funds on to the university. No family is going to have to reach into their back pocket to pay for their child to go to university.”
Fees are going to increase from just over three thousand pounds to as much as nine thousand pounds (while in many cases universities will receive less than at present). But because the money is not demanded from the student up-front, Willetts believes he can make you think it doesn’t exist. Later he made the point this way: “It’s a contribution from the graduate. It’s not from the student,” as if, on graduating, students turn into entirely different people. The same sleight of hand is used by the salesman who promises you a car and thousands of pounds in ‘cashback’ without anything to pay on the day of sale. With one hand he tries to make you think that you are getting a free car and free money, while with the other he is preparing the high-interest loan agreement that will haunt you for decades.
On the same edition of Newsnight, Willetts explained to a student worried about the future quality of university teaching that the fees reform would make everything better. He explained:
“Our philosophy is that the money should come through the choices of the student…what I want to see is universities looking out and thinking what exactly is the teaching experience we offer our prospective students and how can we make sure that it is world-class so that students want to come to this university…they won’t be able to get money through quangos any more, they’ll only get it through the choices of students.”
There are several levels of misdirection in this market logic. Willetts implies that universities currently get money without having to get students, that they get it in some obscure and shadowy way, and that students have no choices about where to study. He also falsely implies that at present university teachers never have to think about what their students want and need. All of this is chaff to prevent us from noticing the historic shift in policy. Universities - under consistent attack for three decades and from all political parties – now take the final step across the Rubicon. With the removal of all national funding from the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, and its drastic reduction in others, higher education in the UK has ceased to be a public good. It is now a wholly private and tradable commodity. That will be the case in Wales and Scotland just as much as in England, notwithstanding the fact that students in the devolved regions will receive funding for the fee increases.  

The choices that will be most enhanced by this are not those of the student, but rather those of investors in for-profit university education, who will soon have a lot more choice about where to put their money. Speaking at Oxford Brookes University in June of this year, Willetts proposed a “cost-effective means of spreading educational opportunity in straitened times”. Universities currently both teach and examine. Willetts’ proposal was to separate these out and to create “new institutions that can teach, but do so to an exam set externally”. That would mean that more FE colleges could teach degrees and that it would be easier to develop “non-traditional” higher education institutions that would provide a “real competitive challenge to universities”. As I have argued elsewhere, those “non-traditional” providers will be private and for-profit companies such as Apollo Inc. Their interest will lie in providing a cheap service, with a high and quick turnover of students. One can easily imagine these new institutions teaching to exams set by a for-profit qualifications agent, itself well motivated to provide assessments agreeable to institutions that want to appear as successful as possible.

On Newsnight, answering a question about the harsh impact of his reforms upon particular subject areas, Willetts said:
“We are not against social sciences. These are changes that operate fairly across all disciplines. I am not sitting in a government department – and nor is Vince Cable – trying to pick the subjects that students should do or trying to tilt the field against one discipline or in favour of another. What we believe in is well-informed choices by students”.
But Willetts does sit in a government department, thinking about exactly how those students will be informed. As he explained on November 3 to the readers of the Daily Mail, he plans to introduce a new system of “kite-marks” validating degrees and providing customers with the information they need to make a purchasing decision. These kite-marks will indicate how highly employers rate universities so that, as Willetts was quoted as saying, “At last, students will be able to see the courses that can get the jobs they aspire to and those that do not perform well”. This is a very particular way of determining the quality of education. The question it raises is not ‘Who will educate the educators?’ but ‘Who will assess the assessors?’

Waving his left hand, Willetts tells prospective students that they won't have to pay any money, will be free to choose whatever university they want and will be better informed about the products available. But with a wave of his right hand, he makes the public university disappear, invites a range of new interests to access wholly new income streams flowing out of the pockets of students and their families, and puts in place mechanisms by which the government set the criteria according to which universities will be judged.

Lots of things are wrong with our universities. The quality and the extent of teaching are variable. The system is under pressure from high numbers and low pay. University management is too often inexperienced and inept. Policy is driven by elite concerns to the detriment of most. Social, cultural and technological change have increased the number and the kinds of things there are to know, as well as the range of people that need to know them. Responding to all that needs careful thought. It needs a confident academic profession, thinking hard and engaging honestly in dialogue with other citizens.
But Willetts and Cable, Osborne and Cameron, have bypassed all that effort and controversy through the application of self-interested market dogma. They have begun building a higher education system that will make some people (probably people who don’t pay taxes in the UK) lots of money, at the same time as it gives governments new and important powers over the regulation of the content and form of university education. And they have done so while saying the magic words of ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’. Hey presto. Watch out for their next trick. 
This article is published by Alan Finlayson, and openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it without needing further permission, with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. These rules apply to one-off or infrequent use. For all re-print, syndication and educational use please see read our republishing guidelines or contact us. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

The Exchange of Knowledge

Photo of the Slade School of Art Protest by Angela Last
Il y a dans l’échange des savoirs non pas un équilibre, mais une croissance formidable que l’économie ne connaît pas. Les enseignants sont titulaires d’un trésor incroyable – le savoir – qui prolifère et qui est le trésor de l’humanité.
In [the exchange of knowledge] there is no equilibrium at all, but a terrific growth which economics does not know.  Teach[ers] are the bearers of an unbelievable treasure – knowledge – which multiplies and is the treasure of all humanity.
[Michel Serres - quote highlighted, and originally translated, by Angela Last]


With yesterday's vote on tuition fees in the House of Lords going the way of the UK Coalition Government, very sadly, we now await the publication of University prospectuses detailing actual fees increases, as well as, more importantly, government announcements on the precise cuts to be made to university teaching grants.

But we will not wait quietly or passively. And we need to focus our attention even more intently than before on how best to move forward with our campaign against the marketisation/privatisation of higher education, and, specifically, against the effects of this on Arts and Humanities education in the UK and elsewhere. Please join our Facebook group, or comment below, if you'd like to be a part of this exploration.

In the meantime, DEFEND the ARTS and HUMANITIES salutes the recent actions of the Social and Cultural Geography Research Group. With around 460 members SCGRG is one of largest and most active research groups of the Royal Geographical Society. In the context of UK cuts in higher education and the associated rise in tuition fees, it has just replaced its regular mission statement, with the following, beautifully worded position statement:
The committee of the Social and Cultural Geography Research Group (RGS-IBG) would like to express their personal support for the geographers and other students who have sought to open up creative spaces to challenge the inevitability of such rapid and deep public spending cuts in higher education.  Our position is that creative, innovative thinking is critical to social and ecological justice, and the stripping away of the intellectual capacity of higher education, through the removal of public funding for teaching and its replacement with a market for students and for knowledge, is detrimental to the achievement of more equitable ways of thinking and living.
“To illustrate the importance of knowledge sharing, I would like to tell you a little lesson in economics: I have a block of butter, and you have three Euros.  If we proceed to do a transaction, you will, in the end, have a block of butter, and I will have three Euros.  We are dealing with a zero sum game: nothing happens from this exchange.  But in the exchange of knowledge, during teaching, the game is not one of zero sum as more parties profit from the exchange: if you know a theorem and teach it to me, at the end of the exchange, we both know it.  In this knowledge exchange there is no equilibrium at all, but a terrific growth which economics does not know.  Teachings are the bearers of an unbelievable treasure – knowledge – which multiplies and is the treasure of all humanity.” (Michel Serres)
Gail Davies (Chair) and the rest of the committee.  With thanks to Angela Last for the quote and translation

With thanks to ER for the link

Monday, 13 December 2010

Three views on the House of Lords' vote tomorrow on the tuition fees rise

The House of Lords where a vote will take place tomorrow on the tuition fees legislation
An open letter to the House of Lords on tuition fees by William Cullerne Bown

To All Members of the House of Lords
On Tuesday [December 14] you will have the opportunity to either approve or reject the statutory instrument raising the cap on tuition fees charged by universities to £9,000. How well has the government made its case?

Vince Cable began his speech to the House of Commons in the debate on Thursday by saying:
“The instrument represents a central part of a policy that is designed to maintain high-quality universities in the long term, that tackles the fiscal deficit and that provides a more progressive system of graduate contributions based on people's ability to pay.”
This statement accurately reflects the case made in recent weeks by the government for its policy on tuition fees. There are three central planks - that it will reduce the deficit, that it is progressive, and that it is necessary for the wellbeing of universities. But how well are these three claims supported by the evidence? [Read William Cullerne Bown's full letter here)
Excerpt from Lords voting on tuition fees by Lord Knight

By convention we do not reject executive orders.  As the unelected chamber we do not consider that we have the mandate to overturn the executive in that way.
That leaves the Lords with a delicate judgement on Tuesday, if the majority do not support the government’s position.  These changes are not implementing a manifesto commitment, indeed they are in direct opposition to a clear election pledge from one of the coalition partners.  They will increase the deficit not reduce it (see today’s Independent).  On that basis it may be possible to win the argument that this is sufficiently exceptional to overturn the convention. [Read the rest of Lord Knight's column here]

Excerpt from A close vote on tuition fees by Bagehot's Notebook at The Economist
I was taken aback to learn that serious figures in the coalition suspect the tuition fees legislation—in its current form—may never go through.
The reason? There are two houses of parliament, and the upper House of Lords is a place with strong ideas about doing the right thing and curbing what their lordships identify as government folly and excess. [Read more at Bagehot's Notebook]

What happened on Thursday

December 9th 2010 saw the UK parliament pass into legislation the right for universities to charge up to £9,000 per annum tuition fees for undergraduate courses.  It also witnessed another day of student and staff protest in London and elsewhere, with an estimated 30,000 demonstrators.  Again the vast majority of protest was entirely peaceful, intelligent, and inspiring. [Martin McQuillan, The English Intifada and the Humanities Last Stand]
Members of the DEFEND the ARTS and HUMANITIES Facebook group  joined last Thursday's protest in London against the rise in tuition fees, stage one of the coalition government's move to 'fully marketise'/privatise the English higher education system. 

Below is a moving account of the protest by one of our group's members. Further eloquent accounts can be found here at the letters' page of The Guardian. And you can also view philosopher Nina Power's photographs of last Thursday's protest here.

This entry is particularly dedicated to Alfie Meadows, a Philosophy student at Middlesex University, studying in a department that has already been condemned by cuts.  The UK Police watchdog (Independent Police Complaints Commission) is currently investigating Thursday's events after 20-year-old Alfie was left with bleeding on the brain by a police truncheon. There's a video about what happened to him here.

Alfie, we salute you, and other protestors, for your courage in placing yourself on the frontline of the democratic, lawful defence, that day, against the attacks on our education system and rights. We wish you a speedy recovery. There will be a peaceful protest about what happened to Alfie in London tomorrow.
What  Happened on Thursday
 Emma Jackson


On Thursday I went to demonstrate against the proposed increase of tuition fees, the abolition of EMA [the Education Maintenance Allowance] and massive cuts to higher education. I ended up being held against my will, firstly in Parliament Square and then on Westminster Bridge. Other people had worse experiences than mine, I was not hit by the police or charged at by horses but I regard what happened to us as a form of police violence. What follows is my account of the day. 

So where to start? I could start at ULU at 12 when we arrive at the demonstration. It’s noisy and big and heartening. My friend Hannah, who is not famed for punctuality, wants us to get there in time to hear Jarvis Cocker speak at the rally. I don’t know if he did or not, we could hear some voices in the distance that sounded amplified but it could’ve been anyone. Maybe I should start at Westminster, because that’s the bit you want to know about but the bit between ULU and Westminster is a happy, lovely protest and should be mentioned. The sun is shining and the people are in good voice. The SOAS salsa band provides a rhythm. We go past loads of riot police at Waterloo bridge, all wearing their cheery blue baseball caps, as if to say ‘yeah, we’re fun kind of guys…’, clad in exoskeleton, helmets in hand. We don’t go down Whitehall but round the back past St James Park. Then we’re there at Westminster. A crowd gather round the SOAS band and have a dance. I break off and go to a café on Whitehall to get a coffee and use the toilet. Not much to report.

I bump into my friends Andy and Sara. The mood is still good, a few daft young lads are walking about, posturing with their bits of balsa wood from the placards, but come on, balsa wood…  Shortly after this, someone throws a burning bottle in the direction of the police. He is restrained by demonstrators. The police appear to be sealing off the exits and we start to think about leaving. This is the first part of how being kettled effects you, the thought of not being allowed to leave makes you want to leave. We edge over to the exit by the treasury. ‘Can we leave?’ I ask the female police officer in riot gear. ‘There is a full containment’. ‘Oh ok’. We’re stuck.

Time passes. A load of people with a sound system walk towards the treasury, it looks like it might kick off so we walk away. Two lads stripped to the waist get on people’s shoulders and… it’s a dance off. ‘I can’t believe we just ran away from a dance off’ says Sara. This goes on for a while. At this point it is like being trapped in a really shit festival. People are lighting fires to keep warm and you get that festival smell of burning plastic. My feet are cold. There’s a scuffle at the treasury, some of the dancers are climbing up the walls and we hear the sound of breaking glass. We find what seems like a safe place, a slightly raised island with a big tree on it and a statue. I figure we can’t get charged by horses on here so it seems like a good base. Also on our island are what look like Further Education students, they look freezing and are huddled round a quite pathetic little fire. I go and ask the police near us, who are guarding a street called ‘Little Sanctuary’ (oh the irony!), if we can leave. The police officer says ‘You have been free to leave all along. You can get out at Whitehall’. We do not trust this information but reckon it’s worth a try so we walk over in that direction. A very helpful man in a ‘domestic terrorist’ t-shirt tells us that they have closed Whitehall again. I don’t much fancy the look of what is going on up there, it looks crowded and potentially dangerous. My instinct is that we are better off on our island. Getting home is important, staying safe, more so. We retreat to our little hill. Maybe time for another biscuit.

Then we see the police charging on the crowd for the first time, coming from Whitehall. People are running and shouting and there is some kind of clash at the treasury. We watch from afar but things have changed now, no more shit festival. On parliament green we see a big fire, I don’t know what’s burning but it’s made of plastic. The smoke obscures the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben chimes. It’s all gone a bit heavy metal. More time passes, we eat some of Andy’s wine gum sours. In an outbreak of mass conformation to national stereotype a long orderly queue is forming up to one of the riot police lines. We can see from our vantage point that no one is getting out of there. And we decide that no way are we queuing. Eventually the queue dissolves.

Then people start to move from the treasury nearer to us. A few windows are being smashed in the building we are facing. Maybe it’s time to leave the island. We walk over to the green. Another group of people are huddled around a fire. A riot police officer is talking to them and then comes over to us, visor up ‘Do you want to go home ladies?’ (in a chirpy Yorkshire accent) ‘so do we, just move to that corner there and you can get out.’ Another part of the process, the proverbial ‘good cop’. We walk over to the corner. Again the animal instinct to keep to the high ground is kicking in and Hannah, Andy, Sara and I stay on the wall of the green. Our other pals get further through the crowd and that’s the last we see of them. People are squashing into this corner and no one is getting out. Then someone shouts ‘Is anyone under 16?’ Maybe they have decided that 5 1/2 hours is the appropriate time to keep children penned in, in the freezing cold? A few kids make it to the front and are pulled out. The rest of us wait. At this point there is no agitation, no violence, and no signs of any cameras. The press van has long left the square. The police are forming two lines on the road that goes from parliament to Westminster Bridge. Because we are up high, we keep feeding the information down to the other people. Andy reckons that the police will make us past their lines while they pull out people they think they recognise. It’s happened to him before. It looks like we are getting out.

The police draw back their line slightly and I step down off my wall. I’m a bit squashed, claustrophobic and frightened so I look up at the night sky. The people next to me are singing in Spanish. One girl is having a panic attack and everyone makes way so she can go back to the green. We chat to some of the young people around us. Two lads debate whether to go home before they go out ‘But I’m wearing a Nick Clegg, Dick Head t-shirt, mate. I can’t go out in this!’ You see, we still think we’re going home soon. One woman starts to shout ‘let us out’. ‘This is how it works’, says Andy, ‘now everyone is thinking ‘shut up, we want to go home’ you are, aren’t you? I am’. He is absolutely right, but that’s how it gets to you. Every now and again people shout ‘let us out, let us out’. I’m not sure how long we are held in this spot, time has gone weird. And then some real movement. We are indeed directed through the police lined street. I think we’re out and it’s like the demo has started again ‘No ifs, no buts, no education cuts’ and the chant ‘We’ll be back. We’ll be back’ loud and clear. What I am thinking in my head as I walk hand-in-hand with Hannah past the riot police is ‘shame, shame on you’. But I don’t shout because I’m cold and frightened. I try and look as many as I can in the eye. One guy with a megaphone (American accent) is saying to the police ‘Can I say, you all look FABULOUS, I just LOVE what you’re doing with those visors right now.’

It looks like they’re letting us go over Westminster Bridge. But then it stops. I talk to an ex-student of mine who has been pushed to the ground twice today in the police charges. There is a police line in front that isn’t moving. This is not good, I think. We are on a bridge over a massive river. Picture Westminster Bridge, if you know it, the barriers on the sides are fairly low. If it kicks off on here, I think, someone is going in the river. The police are also behind us. Keep in mind all these police are in full riot gear. Their faces are mostly covered. They are wearing helmets and they have big round plastic shields in front of them. But there is no conflict. The odd outburst of ‘let us out, let us out’. Some protesters start doing the hokey cokey to keep warm and then the Macarena. Then they go and do the dances for the police. There are now three lines of police backlit by the lights of their vans and the houses of parliament and a load of peaceful protestors some of whom are doing the hokey cokey. A bizarre scene.

I am worried about the vans. Maybe they will put us all in the vans. Surely that’s illegal? But surely this is illegal? The rules seem to have left the building. I see a friend who is working as a legal observer. She has seen a girl with a bald patch at the front of her head where the police have pulled her by the hair. She has also seen people getting beaten up at the treasury. She thinks we may be here for some time.

Two hours later, they start to let people off the bridge. They funnel us through another police line and we are let out one at a time. You have to walk in single file through a corridor of police in riot gear. One of them shines a bright light in my face and asks me to remove my hat. They are filming us. It is at this point that I get upset. I think to myself ‘do not show them any weakness’ but I have to admit, I am a bit teary. Me and Hannah walk past about 100 metres of solid riot police and then another 50m of normal police. We find Sara and Andy and cross the Hungerford Bridge, full of normal people, doing normal things unaware of what has just happened.

We were kettled for 8 hours. What will stay with me is the sight of those backlit police lines on the bridge and the sound of the song ‘if you think this is illegal, clap your hands’.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

"The Mask of Anarchy" by Michael Meranze

The first lines from Shelley's The Mask of Anarchy
As we look forward to a mass march in London today, one taking place to demonstrate to MPs, voting this afternoon on the coalition government's proposed tuition fee rises, the strength of the arguments and the feeling against this policy, let us seek some more inspiration from Percy Bysshe Shelley, and his poetic statement of the principle of nonviolent resistance.

DEFEND the ARTS and HUMANITIES brings you an excerpt from Michael Meranze's stirring two part essay about higher education policy in the UK and the US, named after Shelley's political poem.
The Mask of Anarchy (Part I)  by Michael Meranze

I met Murder on the Way—
He had a mask Like Castlereagh
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven bloodhounds followed him:

All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.

Shelley, The Mask of Anarchy

The dapper Cameron has replaced the corpulent Castlereagh; England does not lead but follows the austerity bloodhounds; and the police kettle rather than kill protesters. But the English state is once more threatening to eat its common folk in the interest of the authority of capital. Despite large and growing protests including massive displays on November 10th and 24th and numerous campus occupations, the Tory-little Tory coalition plans to bring the bill to allow universities to raise student fees to a vote in Parliament on December 9th. With this vote, Cameron and Clegg accelerate their effort to end the public university in England and throw students and potential students into debt for decades. At the same time, as Iain Pears has argued, the state will game the system against the humanities and social sciences by holding the costs of certain science and priority courses unnaturally low while pushing universities to emphasize education for business instead of the business of education.


But the attack on the public university and the nature of education is only part of an effort to shift the costs of society onto the poor, the working-class, the elderly, and the young. As Ross McKibbon has pointed out  there is no true economic necessity or rationale for the Coalition budget and its cuts to services across the spectrum. It only makes sense politically: as an effort to protect the banks (for whom there always seems to be enough money) and to attack the entire notion of welfare or, as it might be better termed, “shared responsibility.” The Department for Work and Pensions apparently ignored a report that suggested its cuts to housing support would affect nearly a million poor people. As in the United States the Coalition is asking the English to believe that a crisis caused by the machination of the finance sector must be solved by cutting support from the poor, the young, and the elderly. The new Conservative-Liberal Democratic government seeks to push through what Thatcher and new Labour never could: the liberation of the wealthy from any obligation to the society that they inhabit.

Neither the students nor labor nor local officials are sitting quietly. The students have planned another massive demonstration—this time at the House of Parliament itself—for December 9th. This protest is only the end of a series of events planned throughout the week. [READ MORE]

Now, read The Mask of Anarchy (Part II) by Meranze which takes up parallel circumstances in the US.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Let them speak Java? Jean-Luc Nancy in Defence of the Arts and Humanities

Animated Java Programmers Brain Screensaver courtesy of ADOK Desenvolvimento de Sistemas

"A single language alone, cleansed of the bugs of reflection, would make the perfect university subject: smooth, harmonious, easily submitted to pedagogical control." Jean-Luc Nancy

In November, the DEFEND the ARTS and HUMANITIES campaign website published a post about the 'phasing out' of degree courses in French, Italian, Russian, and classics, as well as theater, at the University at Albany, State University of New York. Recently, a great open letter by the important French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy in defence of these subjects (filled with his characteristic references to organ transplants!) came to our attention.

The letter is reproduced in full below. Should you not have had the undoubted benefit of a higher education which majored, or minored, in the subject of French, a translation is available here.

Choisir entre supprimer le français et supprimer la philosophie... Quel beau choix ! Enlever plutôt le foie ou le poumon ? Plutôt l'estomac ou le coeur ? Plutôt les yeux ou les oreilles ?
Il faudrait inventer un enseignement strictement monolingue d'une part - car tout peut être traduit en anglais, n'est-ce pas ? - et strictement dépourvu de toute interrogation (par exemple sur ce qu'implique la “traduction” en général et en particulier de telle langue à telle autre). Une seule langue débarrassée des parasites de la réflexion serait une belle matière universitaire, lisse, harmonieuse, aisée à soumettre aux contrôles d'acquisition.
Il faut donc proposer de supprimer l'un et l'autre, le français et la philosophie. Et tout ce qui pourrait s'en approcher, comme le latin ou la psychanalyse, l'italien, l'espagnol ou la théorie littéraire, le russe ou l'histoire. Peut-être serait-il judicieux d'introduire à la place, et de manière obligatoire, quelques langages informatiques (comme java) et aussi le chinois commercial et le hindi technologique, du moins avant que ces langues soient complètement transcrites en anglais. A moins que n'arrive l'inverse.
De toutes façons, enseignons ce qui s'affiche sur nos panneaux publicitaires et sur les moniteurs des places boursières. Rien d'autre !
Courage, camarades, un monde nouveau va naître!
Thanks to RG and JDR for the link.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Education is...

DEFEND the ARTS and HUMANITIES presents a new e poster. Please feel free to share it or otherwise use it as you like.

It is an appropriate accompaniment to the following link to a petition against the trebling of university tuition fees in England, a proposal being voted upon in the British Parliament on December 9. An MP will present to the House of Commons during the debate on Thursday but many signatures are needed if it is going to have the influence it merits.

Here's the link: http://www.gopetition.com/petition/41174.html

DEFEND the ARTS and HUMANITIES urges all of its UK readers to sign the petition and to pass the link on to others as soon as they can. Thank you.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Don't price women out of higher education! More on UK teaching funding cuts

NUS Women's Campaign Against the FE/ HE Funding Cuts and proposed tuition fee rises The NUS Women’s Campaign is calling all women who care about education to action outside the office of Lynne Featherstone MP. Lynne Featherstone is Minister for Women and Equalities in the ConDem government, and is the Liberal Democrat MP for Hornsey and Wood Green. If we are to block the attempt to raise fees on Thursday, then Lynne Featherstone must be persuaded to vote against the government’s proposals. Find out about more about this action proposed for December 8.

The Fawcett Society's legal case against the gender discrimination of the UK Coalition Government's budget will be heard at the High Court on Monday

DEFEND the ARTS and HUMANITIES is happy to flag up the above two campaigns/events in the UK, this week, in the run up to the House of Commons vote on proposed tuition fee rises, and the accompanying 80-100% cuts in public funding of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences university teaching.

We urge you to read the following article by Cardiff University PhD student Naomi Holford, which discusses the discriminatory effects of the proposed teaching funding cuts. The article is published by the Gender and Education Association. As Holford writes.
The subjects which have been deemed irrelevant and unnecessary, their teaching support withdrawn, are those which are disproportionately studied by women: arts, humanities and social sciences.
As RG writes at the DEFEND the ARTS and HUMANITIES Facebook group page:
Obviously we should all support efforts to get more women into STEM fields, but it seems important to remember just how gendered the rhetoric of arts subjects as "unimportant" is.
If these issues, and related ones, concern you, please take action NOW. Read yesterday's D.A.H. entry -- Write, March, Lobby! Say NO to academic vandalism in the UK --  for some suggestions.

With thanks to RG, TS, and ML for the above links

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Write, March, Lobby! Say NO to academic vandalism in the UK

Download poster

Thursday 9 December has been announced as the date that MPs are to vote on controversial plans to raise tuition fees in England. The vote will be a critical test for the Coalition Government, which has faced mass protests over its plan to triple fees to £9,000 after every Liberal Democrat MP signed an individual pledge to vote against any increase if they were elected to parliament.

With the vote being rushed through, it is absolutely crucial for students, academics and other university workers, and their families (and everyone else!) to write to, and otherwise lobby, every MP and counter every argument to vote for increasing the cap. The scale of the task that faces the anti-cuts/anti-tuition fee rise movement is daunting but the efforts so far have been more than up to this challenge.

Over 52,000 people attended the national demo on Wednesday 10 November and independent local student actions have sprung up across the country.

For all those who have supported the campaign, we need to dig deep to deliver on this final and most crucial ask to lobby your MP and to do so today. (Students who can be registered in two constituencies need to contact both sets of MPs).

  1. WRITE TO MPs NOW! For useful information about letter writing, including letter templates, please visit the websites of the Campaign for the Public University and the National Union of Students
  2. MARCH! There will be a National demonstration from University of London Union (ULU) to Parliament, assemble at 12 noon, December 9, at ULU, Malet Street.
  3. LOBBY PARLIAMENT! From 1pm, there will be a mass lobby of MPs at Parliament before they debate (and vote on) increasing tuition fees.  Lobbyists will join protestors on Victoria Embankment for a rally from 3pm (see here for directions).  After it gets dark, the protestors will hold up 9,000 Glo-sticks in a 'candlelit' vigil with the stunning Thames backdrop to symbolise the potential new annual level fee bill students could be hit with.

Welcome to the weird world of British Higher Education policy


At the same time as revenue will drop [with the proposed cuts to public funding of much UK university teaching], even with the rise of student fees, costs will also be driven up inexorably. Universities are charities, and do not pay tax, but they do pay VAT, and this is going up to 20 per cent next year, enough on its own to blow a hole in the budget. There is talk of a compulsory employers’ levy to make up a deficit in the pension fund, which will also be expensive, and possibly very expensive. Many universities are going to be forced into spending more on fund-raising, but with no change to the tax regime for donations, they will all be competing for the same pot of money, spending more in an expensive beggar-thy-neighbour policy. Nor is sending alumni out into the world laden with debt going to increase their generosity in later years. Equally, costs will be driven up by the business of administering a complex fee structure, and complying with whatever directives come from the new super-quango the government sets up. Best of all, perhaps, it seems as though the government is going to cut the teaching grant before the increased revenue from fees starts flowing, risking a quite unnecessary short term funding crisis that could well doom many courses, and even institutions, that might otherwise be viable.

Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of British Higher Education policy.
[..]
In a completely free market, the humanities would clean up. Faced with a choice between an arts degree costing £8,000 a year, and one in science costing upwards of £30,000 a year, then history and philosophy would suddenly become very popular for everyone except those determined to work as scientists. But it is not to be. The natural cost advantages that the humanities enjoy will be erased by continued subsidy to the sciences, while the natural disavantages of the humanities – their lack of access to research money – will continue unchanged. [IAN PEARS]

The above is an excerpt from one of the best talks at the recent Why Humanities? Event at Birkbeck College, November 4, 2010, given by historian and writer Iain Pears: ‘How the Humanities? Taxes, banks, loans, and students’. You can now read the remainder of Pears' fascinating and enlightening talk at his website here. And you can find an audio recording of the talk linked to here, along with links to all the other contributions at this important event.

Friday, 3 December 2010

"Universities need reform – but the market is not the answer" by Michael Collins


A candlelit protest on December 2, 2010, in support of the ongoing student occupation at University College London. Read the students' demands here. As for the poem their banner cites, in The Call to Freedom, Percy Bysshe Shelley ended his argument for non-violent mass political protest with the words:



Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number -
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you -
Ye are many - they are few
.

As students are engaged in a wave of occupations in university campuses across the UK, University College London historian Michael Collins argues, in the opinion piece below, that academics should stand united in determined opposition to government cuts, but at the same time make a positive contribution to thinking about how the existing system of teaching and research can be reformed and restructured. This article was also published as an editorial at the The British and Irish Studies Intelligencer.

Historians – if there any of us left – will one day come to argue over the determining nature of the period immediately following the 2007 international banking crisis. They may view it as the end point of what might become a new narrative for twentieth century British history: the “brief life” of social democracy. Alternatively, they might see it as the time when a coalition of students, activists, teachers, public servants and workers of all classes stood up for notions of justice, fairness and humanity that once put this country at the vanguard of democratic welfarism. This remains to be decided.

If it is the latter scenario, then the students themselves may well be deemed to have led the way. In the face of their current disenfranchisement and the apparent futility of orthodox, formal party politics in defending higher education, many students feel they must take matters into their own hands. Solidarity with student protests amongst academics and the population at large could prove decisive, and this is something that the more intelligent student leaders are well aware of. It must guide their thinking and action over the coming months.

But what about academics themselves? Too many of us seem to believe that the coalition will push through its reforms regardless. They are inevitable, and we had better start planning for the brave new world. On the other hand, the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) leader Sally Hunt lead a chant at the recent national demonstration in London of “you say Tories, I say scum.” Whilst the first position is defeatist and self-fulfilling, the second is deeply embarrassing for all concerned.

We are facing an 80% cut in the undergraduate teaching fund, which may translate into a real terms 100% cut for many arts and humanities departments. The government seeks to replace this lost money with a free market of fee paying consumers (students) who will determine which departments and subjects survive. It will change the nature of education in Britain forever. The situation could not be more serious and urgent action is required.

The ideological longing for a market utopia that underlies this particular aspect of the Browne report is only the more confused because with regard to STEM (science, technology, engineering & maths) subjects, Browne makes clear that the market should not in fact be allowed to rule. It is evident that this division comes down to crude utilitarian calculations of economic value.
It is my belief that academics should be united in determined opposition to the coalition’s plan to end the state’s contribution in some areas of higher education teaching. But, at the same time, we need to make a positive contribution to thinking about how higher education in the UK can be reformed and restructured, and it is here where questions of participation, pedagogy and research are central.

In 1980 roughly 12% of the UK population went to university. That figure currently stands at about 45%. This is a very significant achievement. But, what has to be recognised is that it is simply not possible to teach in the same way that it was twenty years ago and produce the research that is central to funding decisions and to academic standing in the international university rankings.

The old, shockingly elitist system under which only a very small percentage of British children were privileged enough to attend university had certain pedagogic implications. Oxbridge was the benchmark for teaching excellence: the legendary tutorial in which one or two students would gather in the college room of C. S. Lewis for a close reading of Paradise Lost, or chew the fat over the Wall Street Crash with Maynard Keynes.

The truth is that at some point during their degree students at Oxford or Cambridge are now quite likely to be tutored in much larger groups. In many cases they may be taught by graduate students. The use of seminars of ten or more students to teach undergraduates is on the increase, and direct access to revered professors is decreasing.

This not to say that graduate students might not be excellent teachers. On the contrary, they are often superb. But it is not quite the model that some universities sell to their students. Moreover, the use of graduate students as cheap labour also has costs in terms of their own career progression and completion of their doctoral studies.

The reason for this state of affairs is obviously to do with rising numbers, but it is also linked to the enormous significance attached by successive governments to research outputs, measured partly in quantitative terms through citation indices, so-called ‘bibliometrics’. There are many exceptional individuals – and I am lucky to count many of my UCL colleagues among them – who are able to produce world class research and still teach with the verve, energy and imagination that really drives and inspires undergraduate learning. However, there is undoubtedly a long-term contradiction between research output and teaching ever greater numbers of students at undergraduate level.

Students want and often need more contact time with their professors, and they deserve it, not because they are consumers but because they are citizens who have earned their place at university through hard work and merit. If higher education is to be seen as a public good then academics – as public servants – must be very concerned about every aspect of the public benefits they produce: both in terms of research or ‘knowledge production’, and the quality of the student learning experience.

One option that could be discussed is that some universities might teach fewer stand alone degrees and adopt something more akin to the ‘liberal arts’ model found in America, in which vocational subjects with palpable economic benefits are taught as part of the same degree programme as art, philosophy, literature or history: subjects that aim to create critical, thoughtful and reflective participants in a democracy, not mere cogs in an economic machine.

Arts and Sciences can and often should go together – especially in the age of the so-called knowledge economy in which creative industries actually constitute a comparative advantage in this country. Such a reform could be part of putting an end to the absurd over-specialisation that takes place in our education system from an early age, and would be intended to increase the amount of time during which students are being directly taught by teachers.

These measures – for which I am not claiming any particular novelty or ownership – could have the potential of saving money and increasing both the personal and the public value of a university degree. Moreover, combining teaching in some areas might also free up more time for research in others. Last but not least, intelligent reforms could obviate the need for university fees.

There would be winners and losers in term of existing higher education institutions and professional academics. But at least such decisions would be taken in a deliberative manner grounded in the belief that intellectual activity is a sphere of human life that must not be based on measurements of value derived from market competition.

Michael Collins is lecturer in twentieth century British history at UCL.  Michael Collins writes in a purely personal capacity and his views in no way reflect those of UCL.
This article is published by Michael Collins, and openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it without needing further permission, with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines.