The UK government’s attack on the Humanities is an attack on democratic accountability
This was written in December 2010. It’s going up now because I was extremely busy in December 2010 and it’ll be handy to have it published as a reference for one or two other posts.
Not everyone will know what’s happening in the UK, so if you’re from overseas or a Lib Dem MP here’s the state of what’s happening to Higher Education in the UK.
The UK used to have free education at the point of delivery. In fact even into the 1990s students used to get grants to attend university. Students who went through this system are now in parliament. For some, their place in parliament is due to this government-subsidised education.
Grants were removed and replaced with loans during the 1990s. In the late 1990s the Blair government added this “top-up fees” of “up to £3000 pa”. This turned out to be a blanket fee of £3000 pa at every university. In the later days of the Gordon Brown government the Prime Minister appointed Lord Browne, the man who made BP a shining example of corporate success, to produce a report on funding the universities.
This report declared:
A degree is of benefit both to the holder, through higher levels of social contribution and higher lifetime earnings, and to the nation, through higher economic growth rates and the improved health of society. Getting the balance of funding appropriate to reflect these benefits is essential if funding is to be sustainable.
This balance will be important because not all courses will get the same funding.
A UK BA/BSc is in one subject. If you take a BA in English, you have many modules, but all of these will be based on English literature. There is no need for a set number of science credits to graduate. But the specialisation starts much earlier. To get on a course you will need to have taken three Advanced-Level (A-Level) courses (except Scotland which has its own system). To get on to Physics for example you will need A-Levels in Physics, Maths and one more subject. A-levels are taken between ages 16–18, so students are already locked into a narrow set of options without knowing there would be financial consequences. To get onto a set of A-level courses you could, in theory, need a certain set of GCSEs so specialisation could start at 14 in the UK. In reality pupils cover such a broad range of GCSEs that it’s not usually a problem. But certainly, you have a couple of years of students pretty much locked into their course choices and now the Government as switched the costs.
So this is where we are with funding: “Getting the balance of funding appropriate to reflect these benefits is essential…” Under the new system non-STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) subjects will get £0 funding. Funding will be entirely through ‘fees’. The mantra for all parties is that it’s the student who benefits, therefore the student should pay. When they remember they’ll actually say the graduate will pay and hope that graduates with degrees aren’t connected in any significant way with students doing degree courses.
If you view education purely as a personal benefit, this makes sense. Does the country need large numbers of classicists who understand how the Athenian Empire fell? Possibly not. On the other hand if you have a democratic election in a country that’s invaded another country to impose régime change, then an electorate that has analysed similar events in ancient history might have a perspective on whether or not that was a good idea. The government disagrees, and that’s why Classics is not being funded.
Perhaps we don’t need thousands of people specifically trained to examine how the details of the Marshall Plan also protected American economic supremacy in the post-war years, but an electorate trained in basic techniques of analysing evidence to see how the past influences today would be a national asset wouldn’t it? No according to the government, which has withdrawn all History funding.
You might think this is a bit dodgy and that a society requires a certain degree of education. But is understanding the mechanics of society really that useful? The government says no, and Sociology is getting £0 under the new system. Want to ask how the government can be sure that it knows the right answer? That kind of thoughtful critique is not an asset to the nation according the government, so Philosophy is cut. This might be economic madness, but the government sees no value in helping people judge if it is or isn’t. Economics funding is cut. Want to compare our system with others. The government won’t be funding anyone who wants to learn the language necessary to find out. As for anyone that wants to study Politics…
Philosophy, Archaeology, Law etc… will survive due in part to the patronage of the rich and those stubborn enough to seek an education that the government doesn’t value. Education has been reduced to a purely economic commodity, and so the mantra is that it must be economically justified. There is no recognition that an educated electorate is necessary for a functioning democracy. I benefit from large numbers of people being educated and able to spot when a policy is a fantasy, because it has consequences at the ballot box. This is a function of education that isn’t an economic asset because democracy isn’t inherently an economic asset. If it were inherently an asset then we wouldn’t be spending billions supporting dictators around the world, and overseas tycoons wouldn’t be spending large amounts of money on electoral campaigns to block equal access to the electorate. David Cameron is firmly establishing that education is not something he admires in an electorate, and that’s why it’s necessary to tax it.
Conservative supporters will understandably balk at the idea that their fees are an education tax, they’re called fees. However the fees are government redistribution of wealth. The idea that once politicians have this tax they won’t dip into it for other projects is simply not credible. I was rapidly overtaken by reality. Government cuts to universities’ budgets will happen a year before they get funding from the new fees régime. So the first year of the Education Tax will be used to pay for deficit reduction not education. The BBC Licence fee now funds more than the BBC. Currently there’s a slice off it to pay for Broadband upgrades for business to benefit from on the justification the BBC has a website. There’s no reason to believe the Education Tax will be used purely to pay for Higher Education, nor that it will be limited to university degrees. Nick Clegg, whose Liberal Democrats are providing the key votes to pass the tax could pledge that this is not going to happen, but there’s a problem with that. The government is relying to broken promises to pass the tax. It seems reasonable to assume that broken promises will also be a feature of running it.
What makes the situation dire is there is no opposition. The Labour Party was the party that gave us a Higher Education minister that declared education for education’s sake was “a bit dodgy”. They are also committed to taxing the educated, and if they were in power still it’s reasonable to assume that they would agree the balance between nation and student fell entirely on the student. The Liberal Democrats were the only party to stand on a pro-education platform in the 2010 elections. Yet despite promising to abolish tuition fees, the Liberal Democrats have voted to triple fees. Students will leave with £50,000 debt (£100,000 per couple if the Conservative party is still serious about encouraging young couples to marry). This is a debt that will grow and grow despite payments under this scheme unless you earn more than £40,000. At the moment the government has placed a 30 year limit on tax contributions. When it’s clear that the education system is still underfunded, and politicians want to raise more tax money, can they really be trusted to hold to that?