Britain’s universities are going through another period of reform, although in reality it might be better to describe current conditions as the latest stage of a permanent revolution that began some forty years ago. This time, however, there is a very real possibility that the new cost-cutting coalition government will inflict lasting and serious damage on one of the few international success stories in a country that no longer has much to boast about.
The essence of the reforms is that the state will no longer pay for anything it deems inessential, and the old system of state grants—with tuition fees paid out of tax revenue—will finally be abolished. Students themselves will have to pay: the government will lend the money in the form of thirty-year loans, and the students will pay the university and then pay the money back to the government when they get jobs. Only courses that contribute to economic growth in an easily countable way will henceforth be subsidized by tax revenue. Equally, researchers in all areas will increasingly have to demonstrate “impact”—economic or social usefulness—in advance of getting any funding.
The idea behind tuition fees is to introduce a market into higher education: the cost of courses should reflect demand, demand should be determined by the usefulness of a degree in securing future income, and courses should expand, contract, or disappear entirely as a result.
It is a bloodless idea, which sees education only in terms of crude economic output, but at least in its original form it had some elegance to it, theoretically creating the self-correcting, self-regulating mechanism that has been the obsession of right-wing governments in Britain since Margaret Thatcher.
Unfortunately, political considerations intervened within days of the proposals being made—by Lord Browne, former chair of BP—and destroyed whatever merit they may originally have possessed. Because of the peculiarities of Britain’s experiment with coalition government—in which a center-right Conservative party is ruling in alliance with a much smaller center-left Liberal Democrat party—the proposals were modified to try to please both a conservative penchant for market forces and liberal requirements for social equity.
The result is a program of total incoherence in which education is being sacrificed in the cause of political triangulation. Particularly vulnerable are the arts and humanities, which over the years have become categorized as little more than a decorative and economically irrelevant burden.
The British government is now offering to lend the money to students up to a maximum of £9,000 ($14,500) a year. Its justification for this was that market forces would compel universities to compete on price and thus ensure that the level of fees stayed much lower—it based its financial calculations on the assumption that half a dozen or so universities (Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial) would charge the maximum, and the rest would set lesser rates to attract students.
This showed a remarkable lack of understanding of how markets actually work. Demand for places has always been higher than availability; an offer to underwrite fees removed any brake on demand ordinarily caused by higher prices, and the universities were assured of the money whether or not the borrowers later defaulted.
The result was predictable and came swiftly—nearly all the universities, from high to low, decided to charge the maximum amount: why should they not do so? They knew perfectly well that the government would fuel the demand in a form of academic quantitative easing, stoking up demand through its loan system. They did not have to compete on price, so they decided to compete on reputation—and no institution wanted to be seen as cut-price and inferior. The measures, oddly, guaranteed that nearly all would set the maximum fee level possible. This not only blew a hole in the government’s finances—the government will now have to borrow much more than it thought to provide the loans that it has guaranteed to provide—but also torpedoed the idea of a real market before it was even introduced.
Other modifications further damaged this new businesslike model. Cheaper products, in business, attract more demand, but the government decided it didn’t want this either. In a pure market system, the humanities would prosper because they would cost less: all they need is a room, a few books, and a teacher, while the sciences need all sorts of expensive toys. Additionally, in Britain, not that many people are either qualified or have the desire to study science: the humanities have always been much more popular.
But the new proposals distort this as well: the sciences will continue to be heavily subsidized to erase the fact that studying them is so much more expensive. The maximum £9,000 level for tuition fees was determined not by what courses actually cost but by what was politically acceptable. The imposition of this arbitrary limit will place many institutions in the position of being forced to run courses at a loss or of lowering standards to make ends meet.
While these reforms were meant to be part of a general program to roll back state support of higher education, the actual result is now the precise opposite. In order to contain the incongruities its own innovations have introduced, the government plans to increase massively the amount of regulation to stop a system that depends on unfairness (the ability to pay) from actually being unfair. This will, in turn, increase bureaucracy and costs rather than reduce them.
Government ministers are now contemplating the creation of a Higher Education Council—stocked with business executives and university administrators appointed by the government and answerable only to the government—with quite extraordinary powers.
The outline for this council suggests it will be able to define and enforce standards, fund particular courses and shape what is taught in them, specify teaching hours, take over or shut down institutions it decides are failing, impose “access commitments” to determine the correct social mix of students, set targets for dropout rates, set admission requirements, and adjudicate student complaints.
Rather than set universities free, therefore, the new regime is one in which government will determine demand, supply, and what is taught and to whom. It will amount to the most centrally controlled education system in the Western world—effectively nationalization.
And while the government is canceling its commitment to fund teaching, it has decided to maintain many of its direct grants to support research. Again, this decision provides a rationale for increased interference: the government will make sure that the money is spent efficiently and that research meets national “strategic goals.”
Ministries and Stupidities
If these powers were to be used wisely, then all might still be well, or at least tolerable. Unfortunately, the signs are not good. The research budget for all subjects is being reduced in real terms, and stringent restrictions on visas are coming into force that will, for the first time, prevent universities from recruiting the best academics from overseas.
More important still, the Ministry of Business—and it says a great deal about the current situation that this ministry, rather than the Ministry of Education, is in charge of universities—is now intervening in research, directing it toward politically slanted projects that the ministry considers worthwhile.
Some of this is merely ludicrous or embarrassing, such as the document from the British Academy praising humanities teachers for giving courses to salespersons at Unilever on Shakespeare and leadership, or on Machiavelli and marketing. Some is sinister, like the pressure that led another research council to divert money into research on the “Big Society,” the prime minister’s favorite, if vacuous, catchphrase.
Most, however, is just plain dumb. British gov-ernments have long had a weakness for picking “national champions,” and central direction was an important factor in reducing previously world-leading industries—shipbuilding, cars, machine tools—to bankruptcy and extinction in the 1960s and 1970s. While those successive governments were preventing auto manufacturers from modernizing, they also failed totally to see the possibilities of electronics and so squandered an early lead in fields such as computing.
Now the government is at it again, in the belief that a committee can pick which areas of applied linguistics, electronics, genetics, or physics are the intellectual and financial winners of the future, when not even the people working in those areas know what line of inquiry will prove fruitful. Funding will be allocated by bodies whose members will often not even be the greatest experts in the fields under discussion.
In order to get grants aimed at officially approved fields, in other words, researchers are going to be forced to concentrate their efforts in predetermined areas that may be useless while neglecting other, potentially important, lines of inquiry. It is difficult to imagine a more surefire way of destroying a research base.
The Fatuous Mediocrity of Output
As far as the humanities go, the picture is, if anything, even bleaker. The new regime of “impact” specifically excludes scholarship as a criterion for receiving grants. At the same time, the diffusion of ideas through teaching is considered irrelevant. Rather, applicants for research money will need to show the social and economic “output” of their work. For example, a pilot program ended up commending one project because the researchers got their subject—Hampton Court Palace—a mention in a popular consumer magazine as a “heritage day out” for historically minded tourists. Not only does this new regime promise to make researchers explore whole new continents of fatuous mediocrity, but it also poses particular problems for subjects like medieval history or the study of Renaissance French, which may find it difficult to achieve contemporary relevance.
And in more modern areas, there is the obvious risk of political distortion. A regime that privileges economic growth as the ultimate policy goal may not be entirely balanced when assessing a project that casts doubt on the system that produces (or, as at present, doesn’t produce) that growth.
But how and why are these changes happening?
The answer is a complicated one, but one element that is absent from the answer is the question of education, a topic that has been of very minor importance to governments for the past fifty years. The universities—largely through their own ambitions—now find themselves at the center of social and economic policy.
Universities have become prime sites offering quick fixes to the country’s problems: not only are they supposed to deliver the ideas that will relaunch a flagging economy, but they are also supposed to correct the major social inequalities thrown up by an underperforming school system and an economic structure that has distorted the distribution of wealth.
Not very long ago, higher education was of such unimportance that it attracted little funding and was left blessedly alone. Until the 1980s, only about 17 percent of school pupils went on to university study, and they—generally male and middle class—were given generous grants that paid for fees and living costs as long as they studied.
Most practical research was done—and paid for—by companies, and much vocational training required no university degree to be valid. Teaching loads were light, and most humanities research was done during vacations. The French historian Alfred Cobban, for example, was reminded when he was given a professorship in the 1960s that he was being paid to teach. If he wanted to write books, he would have to do it in his spare time.
Since then, everything has changed. The universities made the case that they were the key to a prosperous future. They should be the institutions in which both training and research are centered. They won the argument, and the money flowed in, but it was a Mephistophelian bargain. It gave governments not only a reason to interfere with universities but also the means to do so. They very swiftly began to use that power.
First to go were any remnants of the old self-governing communities of the past. Under reforms of the 1990s, most internal faculty senates or governance bodies were either abolished or gutted of their power, removing any effective oversight of administration. Second was tenure: most English academics can now be dismissed at will. These two measures alone converted academics into mere employees rather than governors of their institutions, with legal protection for their freedom to research.
Next came the imposition of a standard system for assessing research based on the scientific model—the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) conducted every five years or so. An increasing proportion of funds came through research grants, so research “output” was assessed, departments were given stars, and these stars determined the level of funding. Lose a star and, a bit like a Michelin restaurant, your income dropped. Teaching was, consequently, neglected as greater efforts were put into a vast number of publications—the notorious “RAE fodder”—produced not because the authors had something to say but because their university’s finances needed them to say it.
Along with these changes came increased corporatization. Since the 1980s, British governments have been rather pathetically obsessed, against all evidence, with the idea of management as an abstract good: the solution to all problems, in all areas, has been to increase management power.
This was supposed to make the universities not only better run but also more sympathetic to the demands of corporations, with which universities were supposed to be collaborating on research. As a result, the universities were remodeled to match doctrine: a huge and increasingly authoritarian managerial apparatus was built up, often staffed by people who had neither taught nor done any research, and placed above academics in a commanding role.
The Audit of Insects
Finally, there has been the obsession with quantification, the view that if something cannot be given a value on a spreadsheet, it has no merit. Governments have long been on the road to a dark Hades of value without meaning, prompted by an almost overwhelming desire to control and monitor in compensation for their increased powerlessness in areas that matter.
Nor does this affect universities alone. The previous Labour government introduced a measure setting out sixty-nine performance targets for children at nursery school: marks were awarded for the quality of sandbox play. And sometimes the effects drift into the realm of the surreal: the current government has recently commissioned an audit of nature itself, concluding, for example, that insects contribute £430 million to gross national product.
Such increasingly psychotic behavior, of course, could meet with success only if it encountered no serious opposition, and this, perhaps, is the most depressing aspect of the current state of British higher education. At no stage in the past thirty years has there been anything other than cosmetic resistance to the steady erosion of academic freedom and the values that these changes, in combination, constitute.
All governments have proven adept at finding people within the academic system to do their work for them: there has never been a shortage of volunteers to pass judgment on their peers through the Research Assessment Exercises or the Teaching Assessment Exercises, or to sit on committees allocating funds according to government-imposed guidelines.
Nor has there ever been difficulty finding people to abandon teaching to go into the new and vastly better-paid management positions. One of the characteristics of the new managerialism is the massive increase in administrative overheads at all institutions in the past couple of decades as managerial salaries have increased at much higher rates than those of academics themselves. At the same time, the research councils have increasingly come to see themselves as the executors of government policy rather than the defenders of high-quality research.
Not only have these been swift to impose government wishes, they have also taken every opportunity to use their position astride the cash flow to increase their own powers. The proposals for the new Higher Education Council would merely complete a process that has been going on for years.
But the fundamental problem throughout has been language. The new terminology of managerialism was never challenged. Academics from the 1980s onward adopted the strategy of gaming the system. If governments wanted vision statements or output disclosures or esteem indicators in exchange for money, then that was considered a price worth paying.
It wasn’t. For once the language was accepted, then the thought processes behind the language were accepted as well. Once limited by the language of cost-benefit analysis, many subjects became pointless. It is impossible to sustain classical languages or medieval poetry or anything but the most recent history once their justification has to be couched in such terms. There is no countable added value to pure critical thought or the continuation of the heritage of civilization. Such disciplines need a different language to express different values.
Those values, in England, were not defended when the opportunity was there. Now the chances of doing so effectively are very small indeed.
Iain Pears is an English art historian, novelist, and journalist. In 1987, he became a Getty Fellow in the arts and humanities at Yale University. His well-known novel series features Jonathan Argyll, art historian. The historical mystery An Instance of the Fingerpost was an international bestseller.
Poor Mr. Pears.
He believes everybody has conspired to kill the once magnificent university system. That is everybody except the universities and the faculty themselves, if you eliminate the turncoats that have sided with government to destroy the system.
I couldn’t find one single element pointing to the slightest suggestion of a hint of responsibility in the current situation to universities or academia.
If Mr. Pears could find in himself to look at how the universities and the professors have contributed to their own problems, his argument would be more acceptable. If he could, for one moment, look at the universities from the point of view of students, tax payers, business or government, I am sure he would be more reasonable. For example, he may understand why highly educated and often unemployed people look at the academic community’s defense of tenure and the god-given right to sabbaticals as outrageous. He may even accept Alvin Toffler’s concept of de-synchronization which highlights the differences in the level and speed of change between universities and the rest of society.
Finally, he may want to read Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, two US academics. That is if he is interested in the actual outcome of education.