The utilitarian fallacy

The Browne Review’s narrow economic approach will leave vital non-STEM subjects at the whim of fad and fashion and ultimately undermine the academy, argues Gerald Pillay

November 12, 2010

The public debate around the Browne Review has focused on the impact of its proposals on student debt. If its recommendations become law, however, the report’s real import will lie elsewhere, in the changes it will bring to the character of higher education as a fundable public good. The report proposes the removal of government funding for the bulk of university teaching, forcing institutions to raise that lost income from students through fees. What has always been a vital provision available to all citizens alongside health and basic social services would be withdrawn in England.

But the report potentially represents another fundamental change to the character of the academy. By funding certain university courses and not others, the government plans to steer students deliberately towards those disciplines that it perceives to be economically relevant to the country. Higher education would indelibly be equated with training for work. The problem is that even if one accepts that only disciplines that are fundamental to the economy should be publicly funded (which I don’t), it is much harder than one might think to determine those disciplines.

I was at a conference of European rectors when Lord Browne of Madingley’s recommendations were announced. They were met with gasps of disbelief. No one in the room could understand why any government would put itself in the role of social engineer and workforce planner. Governments perform such roles badly at the best of times: remember when we had to import nurses and teachers from abroad?

Ours would be the only government in the world that subsidises teaching costs in four areas – science, technology, engineering and mathematics/medicine – and not the whole scope of academic study. But the fact is that many of our engineering and science graduates do not end up in engineering or science at all, but in banking and finance. What then is the government really funding by financing STEM teaching alone?

Good science emerges when bright individuals make major experimental jumps, many of them unplanned insights that lead to greater things. We have the obligation to prepare these minds through disciplines that at first may not seem to be economically relevant. As we know, “chance favours the prepared mind”.

Meanwhile, there are many disciplines, particularly in the arts and humanities, that do not have obvious, direct links to the economic development of the country nor attract students like other more fashionable subjects. The Browne Review would leave their funding entirely up to students. But fashions change and the market-relatedness of a field waxes and wanes (for example, sociology after the 1980s or computer sciences in the late 1990s). Can any government predict all this and keep up in real time? Can students be “trusted” to make the right decisions for the future of the country?

Based on existing student demand, language departments in this country already struggle and many have been closed. Classics, history, philosophy, politics and a clutch of other subjects (some core sciences, too, alongside the social sciences and many liberal-arts disciplines) will wither under the new funding regimen. Yet universities need to maintain their arts and humanities programmes to save them from becoming glorified polytechnics or research institutes. And many graduates in these areas end up contributing significantly to the economy, including in the financial world. Many employers in the City are said to prefer employees with a critical humanities education, which is perceived as a positive bonus. Will undergraduates remember this when choosing between two degrees, one of which has the government’s blessing in the form of funding and one of which does not?

By attempting to use funding to steer students towards certain disciplines, the report fundamentally misunderstands the way universities need to work if they are to produce excellence. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of how they function knows that scholarship and disciplinary strength of sufficient quality must first be established to develop courses that then attract students. It does not work the other way around.

Yes, the university does and should prepare people for work. But it does so partially by helping them to become creative, thoughtful, well-informed citizens. This is a public good and a means by which we maintain and enhance our democracy. By choosing to patronise only certain disciplines, the coalition will be judged for undermining higher education – a wrong move out of step with the rest of the world.

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