Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Browne Sauce with your Cuts?

After a prolonged summer break, I'll kick off the new blogging term with a few comments on the Browne review, which seems to me to do to Higher Education what Beeching did to the railways. I haven't actually read the report, but am basing my comments on a summary from the THES.

The first thing that strikes me is that universities will now supposedly be exposed to the market -- that all-powerful benevolent force which has already just about wrecked our economy and is the root cause for the required cuts in funding. Market? Not quite, though: some subjects will be subsidised. So the market only works for the arts and humanities, where presumably not much is at stake, while all those important 'priority' subjects like maths and medicine will be propped up by taxpayers' money. Of course you can't have a philosopher operating on your kidney. But I guess a medic can still reason about the meaning of life.

This really gets me, how the arts are billed as a huge waste of time and money. But hey, Cameron is an arts student, he did philosophy/politics/economics at Oxford. Clegg studied social anthropology at Cambridge. You can see that those degrees did not equip them with the necessary competence to rule a small island state in Europe.

The arts are not about the luxury of appreciating 18C literature or being able to read Beowulf in the original, they are about general education. This old Humboldtian ideal of the humanist. I think we have too little of that in society and politics, and too much greed and hunger for power.

Removing the fee cap will have a devastating effect on the less affluent, and will turn back the clock a few decades when only the rich could afford to go to university. By the time my three kids are ready to go to university, we will probably have to re-mortgage our house to afford the fees, unless we want them to start off with huge debts, which will make it hard for them to get a mortgage themselves, let alone live a life without being anxious about money all the time.

The basic justification for this massive shake-up is that the students benefit from going to university, and taxpayers should not have to pay for them to have three leisurely years away from home, partying and getting drunk every day. I don't believe that is what student life is like. It wasn't when I was a student. It's a bit like saying that all benefit claimants are basically lazy cheats who buy flat-screen tvs and watch day-time television, while their neighbour works 10 hrs a day and pays for all this: a few spectacular cases make it into the news, while the large majority of students lives a boring life sitting in the library and writing essays.

The real benefit of a well-educated population goes to society in general. This is what's called 'civilisation', and Nick Clegg should have heard that term during his studies of anthropology. It is of course hard to measure and put a price on, and that makes it hard to argue. Somebody has to pay, but it should be society.

And while £4.9bn pounds are cut from Higher Education, the navy get £5bn to build new aircraft carriers. Maybe we can put all our arts students to service here: all those decks will need to be washed, and the shiny planes will need polishing. Even with an arts degree you should be able to do that...