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.

Nick Clegg shows us his election face

Nick Clegg shows us his elec­tion face

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?

See also:

Browne’s Gamble

The English Intifada and the Humanities Last Stand


When he's not tired, ill or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

1 Response

  1. October 4, 2011

    […] Given the strong grip on pre-18 edu­ca­tion by the gov­ern­ment, uni­ver­sit­ies are likely to be most flex­ible ini­tially, but such research could give schools and uni­ver­sit­ies a com­mon voice on where changes in the national cur­riculum are neces­sary to improve edu­ca­tion. The car­rot for the gov­ern­ment is that this research in reas­sign­ing pri­or­it­ies might mean improve­ments to edu­ca­tion are pos­sible without hav­ing to increase fund­ing. The big assump­tion here is that any UK gov­ern­ment would act­ively wel­come bet­ter edu­ca­tion, which can­not be taken for granted. […]