The scholars who put ‘useless’ study to work

Tales of activism and optimism and an eminent scholar’s defence of the humanities aired at Living With the Cuts conference

June 12, 2014

Source: Alamy

Recessional order: scholars discussed ‘a new civic politics’ in an era of cuts

From living wages to the future of the humanities, a conference has heard how academics are fighting back against the impact of austerity on higher education.

Living with the Cuts: Policy, Politics and Everyday Lives in the Recession was held at the British Library and organised by the University of East London and the Narratives of Varied Everyday Lives and Linked Approaches research node at the University of London’s Institute of Education. It featured speakers discussing food banks and children’s well-being, welfare reform and “poverty porn”.

Tim Hall, principal lecturer in philosophy at UEL, reflected on his “experiences as an activist and organiser” in a campaign to introduce the living wage into higher education, which proved successful at his institution in 2010. He and his fellow campaigners had organised politically around access to credit issues and petitioned Newham Council to ban payday advertising in the borough. They also set up a programme in social engagement for students, on which they are marked.

Such forms of organising have had a wider significance in “opening up a new civic politics”, said Dr Hall. With the decline of trade unions, there is “a turn to the community rather than the workplace” to address issues such as transport and childcare. Also noteworthy were moves to “mobilise faith groups” to “re-enter the public sphere and campaign for social justice”, allowing such unlikely allies as the Catholic Church and Stonewall to work together to achieve common goals.

Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund distinguished service professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, paraphrased recent comments by Pat McCrory, the governor of North Carolina, that he would “cut all these useless subjects which don’t lead to jobs”, giving gender studies as an example.

Yet in reality, Professor Nussbaum said, the humanities “help people understand their lives” – which was why they are “leaping forward in adult continuing education, where people often turn to them when they are facing loss, illness or approaching death” – and were essential “to promote human development”. They also have direct benefits in economic and job terms, since “unemployment rates are lower among graduates in English than computer studies”.

Although cuts in public budgets mean that universities are now more dependent on private funding, Professor Nussbaum believed that they could find effective ways of limiting its impact. “My president says he spends 50 per cent of his time saying ‘no’ to donors who want to make suggestions about faculty or [a] syllabus. The key is making them know that faculty decide about teaching – that doesn’t always happen in some countries.”

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