Browne's hidden hand a slap in sector's face (part 1)

November 4, 2010

When it comes to higher education for the humanities and social sciences, the language of cuts has disguised one of the most thoroughgoing acts of privatisation since the sell-off of national assets in the Thatcher and Major years ("The shape of things to come", 28 October). The "hidden hand" of the market came to smite the railways, for example, resulting in decades of underfunding, chaos, the end of "national" planning and growing fragmentation. I worry for the future of our sector if we are turned into another Railtrack.

The paradox is that privatisation makes the customer king just at the time when students' instrumentality has increased to the point when their only interest is in their final degree classifications. The tensions within the sector are due to increase dramatically as "customers" and "service providers" clash over the real purpose of higher education, the value of extensive reading and hard work. Cardinal Newman must be spinning, let alone turning, in his grave. The student-teacher relationship will not survive the shakedown as "value for money" replaces scholarship as the purpose of a degree.

The government's cleverness is to turn campaigning against cuts into the appearance of selfishness. I'm not sure the same can be said about privatisation. Discussions about the full effects of ending public funding for the humanities and social sciences have not been part of the cuts debate, but these effects are likely to be profound unless realistic limits are imposed.

John D. Brewer, Department of sociology, University of Aberdeen; President, British Sociological Association.

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