The wave of cuts which began in places like Sussex, King’s London and Hull has now hit Middlesex, which has announced it is going to close its philosophy department despite the fact that it is one of the highest rated departments in the university.
The pattern in all cases has been pretty much the same – an announcement of a decision taken in secret and presented with no alternatives; taking aim at the humanities (philosophy in particular seems to be a favourite target) and a refusal to explain the basis of the decision except for vague comments about financial sustainability which cannot be tested against any available evidence.
The result is a great deal of confusion, to put it mildly, about what is happening, not least because the assaults seem on the surface to be so arbitrary, random and irrational.
But I do not think these similarities are an accident; in fact the actions of managements show all the signs of at the very least following an understood pattern – it would be too paranoid (and too optimistic about the coherence of government) to conclude that there is an actual plan. But it is worth looking at what it all means.
The public starting gun, of course, was the letter the minister for business, Peter Mandelson, wrote to introduce his first round of cost cuts just before Christmas 2009. These cuts, it must be remembered, were fairly mild, so much so that the severity of the reaction inside the universities themselves seems out of proportion. Managements have reacted with quite remarkable speed, with several producing their response – job cuts centred on the humanities -- within a few weeks of the announcement.
The response was far too quick, in fact; at the very least they must have been working on them for months in advance and all the signs are that they are also planning for the next cuts, and those after that. It would seem reasonable to conclude that messages have been flowing to and fro for some time, and that management knows much more about the direction of future funding than it is telling. King’s put out a forecast of what might happen, which it presented as a sort of guess. It may well be that it was a little more than that.
If the cutbacks being announced are not simply individual responses by university managements but are, in fact, aspects of an almost coherent policy, that what might that policy be? In the last few years reading the entrails of gnomic government utterance has become something of a necessity, as more and more policies – especially ones that are likely to prove unpopular -- have been introduced piecemeal, so that what exactly they are cannot easily be discerned until they are fully in place.
But there are, at least, enough hints to go around, and to understand the possible direction of government thinking, it is important to remember a little history.
In the beginning was the binary divide. Until 1992 higher education was split in two, the universities and the polytechnics, which worked a little like grammar schools and secondary moderns in the secondary sector. The task of comprehensivisation, so to speak, fell to the Conservatives, not out of a desire to improve education (a minor question for generations of politicians), but more to teach the universities a lesson.
By levelling the playing field -- funding was previously tilted to universities' advantage -- they aimed to drive costs down as the polys produced degrees much more cheaply than the universities did. The scheme was given an extra twist in the 1990’s when universities were used as a dumping ground to soak up excess youth unemployment, the basis of the Major government’s drive to increase student numbers.
This worked well: the universities were cowed, found no way of fighting back effectively, and ended up compromising their integrity in the search for grants and foreign students to fill the coffers. Although they had more money, the sources of that money were much more unstable, and that made the universities more malleable.
What the government did not foresee was the effect this would have on the polys. At the time a much larger portion of income came from student fees paid by government, and it was a lot cheaper to produce arts graduates (who need little more than a few books and a room or two) than ones in science, who need all manner of expensive toys and knick-knacks. The polys expanded into the humanities to tap that source of revenue, and also for reasons of prestige: real universities had philosophers and stuff, so they wanted some too.
The problem was that the same reform which abolished the binary divide also began to shift the whole basis for funding to concentrate more on research, an area in which the humanities find it very difficult to compete. The amount of money a philosopher can bring in through grants is very small, in comparison to the vast sums that a chemist or engineer can attract.
As universities developed the habit of creaming off ever larger sums from departments for their own purposes, they began to think of the humanities as a waste of time. The ever more complex accounting methods used slowly began to flash up the conclusion that the humanities, instead of being cheap and cheerful ways of attracting revenue, were becoming liabilities because they could not attract enough.
Which brings us to the present, and all the signs seem to point to the idea that the government intends by stealth to re-establish a form of binary divide. The humanities will shrink across the board, but will be particularly hard hit in the group that lies outside the Russell Group and perhaps a dozen or so others.
Outside this sector, the arts might be even wiped out altogether, with a large portion – possibly a majority -- of the “new” universities returning to their old function as institutes of vocational training – still universities, but only in name. They, in particular, will be the ones which will find it hard to resist government pressure to institute two year degrees – fast-track courses which will make it impossible for those who teach them to do any research at all.
This outline coincides nicely with government statements on emphasising “stem” subjects, the concentration of research money in the Russell group, which gives these universities much more flexibility, the way that managements have been behaving, and with the forthcoming review of student fees. A place like King’s is drastically pruning the humanities, but is clearly aiming to keep them going. Others might not have the option.
The problem that will come from this is how to manage demand. If a large number of places the humanities disappear, how will government steer future students into the largely vocational subjects they wish them to study? The probable answer here is fees. If humanities subjects are overwhelmingly confined to about 30 or 40 institutions, then these are likely to be the ones – because of the higher ranking which greater access to research money will give -- that will be in a position to charge much higher fees if – or rather when – the current cap comes off.
I would not be at all surprised if, in 10 years time, a degree at a Russell Group university costs £15,000 a year, a level which the new universities would not be able to match. The binary divide will have been recreated not by differential government grants, but by differential student fees. And, of course, if most arts degrees are concentrated in this group, then the number of people from poorer backgrounds able to study for one will shrink dramatically.
Do even university managements want this? Probably not; but they are reacting to circumstance at the moment and too busy fighting their own academics to think about lobbying together for a change in policy. Would they be able to do anything about it even if they tried? Probably not again. They are, after all, up against people who can manipulate the funding structure to get the outcome they want: arts degrees can be profitable or loss-making depending on the funding milieu that government sets.
Even going private – and only Oxford and Cambridge could realistically contemplate such a thing – would not help much. Nor is there much chance of bursaries or hardship grants being anything more than cosmetic. 50,000 students each year receiving bursaries of only £5,000 for their three years study would require an endowment of £25 billion – more than the combined endowment of all the universities put together at present. There is absolutely no chance of raising such sums.
Universities will have little choice but to do as they are told, shrink their arts faculties and concentrate on producing the human fodder the government fashion currently thinks that the knowledge economy requires.
The combination of artificially-induced market forces and government disdain for the humanities as economically non-productive will shrink arts subjects into a ghetto where they will become increasingly studied by those who can afford to pay, at institutions which can afford to charge. On current showing this will, probably, include few of the new universities.
-- Iain Pears