First, I echo most of what’s already been said in defence of continued public support for the arts and humanities (and especially the social sciences, which are going to have fewer friends in the brave new world of privatised higher education). But the academy as a whole is under threat today.
I’m writing from a new university (not my own), which has invested heavily in law and business, has good provision for the performing arts and the humanities…but little science. There’s real fear here along with obvious anger. The prospect of private business and law schools – whose funding, let’s be clear, has also been withdrawn – undercutting existing provision may undermine this university fatally. Meanwhile, today’s salami slicing of science research funding means that older universities are also assailed from all sides – as someone once said, “we’re all in this together”…
Second, today’s news has been coming for a while: we can’t just blame a “Tory” ideology of privatisation. The neoliberal university wasn’t even Lord Browne or Lord Mandelson’s idea. It became a Treasury project as soon as Dr Gordon Brown (PhD in history) became Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Lambert Review was the most visible part of a campaign for the “better management” of universities – management in the service of the alleged needs of business.
The neoliberal university has since begun to emerge, through conflicts over governance and strategic direction, at Leeds Metropolitan University, Royal Holloway, University of London, the University of East London, City University London, Brunel University, the University of the West of England and the University of Oxford, among others. In these institutions, differences over the nature of education were contested at all levels. At City, for example, a vice-chancellor who thought of the university as an academic institution – and academics as its key staff – left when it became clear that the governing body didn’t share his view.
As vice-chancellors focused on the bottom line, the principal casualties were modern languages and laboratory-based sciences. Meanwhile, despite politicians’ silly attacks on media studies, all political parties claimed that the cultural and creative industries were saviours of the economy. It appeared to be so. From Noel Gallagher at 10 Downing Street to the eight Academy Awards for Slumdog Millionaire, from the global rise of Harry Potter to the institutional status accorded to the Turner and Booker prizes, British cultural production has been celebrated.
UKHE plc joined the party by offering the “new humanities” of journalism, creative writing, media and film production, computer-games design, music technology and so on. Here’s a typical celebration, c.2008: “The university is at the heart of the booming creative and cultural industries…We have a long history of excellence in the arts and technologies, which have come together to generate this exciting boom.” And a boom it has been – last year, King’s College London was recruiting staff for its Centre for Culture, Media and Creative Industries, even as jobs were being cut elsewhere.
So that’s all right then, we in the 1992 sector’s applied liberal arts might have thought. For every module in critical studies lost, we have gained two in critical practice. Our graduates will get jobs: we’ll survive. But no, when it comes down to it, all will be collapsed into the “arts, humanities and social sciences”, and none shall have prizes. We’re all in this together.
What are we left with, apart from calls for “resistance” that boil down to these propositions:
• the state should continue to pay everyone’s salaries and educate students at the taxpayer’s expense
• that’s it.
How can we be positive, as even today we must, in order to defend what we do as a continuing contribution to the common good?