Wailing, gnashing of teeth and general anger, but what are we going to do about it?

I have been undeniably absent from this blog for a while now, despite half-hearted promises to write up the Clerical Cosmos symposium in Oxford, the Battle Conference outing to Castle Acre and many other exciting episodes in the life of a medievalist. I may yet do some, all or none of these things in due course, but in recent weeks I have been overwhelmed by a combination of work and personal circumstances while I watch aghast and horror-struck as the coalition government systematically dismantles the welfare state and UK university system.

The Browne Report and Comprehensive Spending Review seem to have delivered all we feared and some. Universities are facing the removal of the block grant for teaching and an 80% cut in teaching funds. Only a few courses will qualify for government money and yes, you’ve guessed it, they land squarely in the ‘STEM’ (i.e. science) subject bracket with limited provision for a few modern languages. The two areas dearest to mine and Reivers’ hearts – Humanities and Mathematics – will receive nothing. The sole source of funding will come from students themselves.

Much of the debate so far has centred on the financial arguments, usually prefaced by ‘Why should the taxpayer..?’ imbecilic, rhetorical questions. This presupposes a number of factors including the somewhat bizarre notion that those people who have some connection to universities are somehow NOT taxpayers. The saddest thing is to see the students I teach, or who have recently graduated, swallowing this rhetoric whole. That’s before we get on to the implications for outreach such large hikes in fees will have.

The direction these arguments have taken, in an already distressing situation, completely misses many points. One can always rely on Simon Jenkins to achieve this feat in the most spectacular neo-liberal tradition. To talk of education in purely financial terms reduces the concept to a commodity to be bought and sold, rather than a public good (see Stefan Collini in the LRB). Arguably, this has already happened following the introduction of tuition fees by the last Labour government. Pertinently, given Jenkins’ use and abuse of the word ‘medieval’ in his piece, the medieval church was concerned about this very issue. Canon 18 of the third Lateran council sought to make provision for educating the clergy and preventing the sale of licences to teach. Education and time, the latter a crucial point for those who made their living from usury, were not commodities to be bought or sold.

Now obviously someone has to pay for university education and the question is who? The government tells us that those who benefit should pay, i.e. the students, either at the point of entry or once they graduate, though again we have those ‘special’ (used here in the parlance of our times to mean something vaguely significant without having given it any thought) courses – medicine, etc. – the graduates of which will clearly change the world and thus benefit everyone, whilst commanding huge salaries. But again, this desperately thin utilitarian view misses the point. Graduates in the Humanities and Mathematics (as well as countless other subjects) contribute to the social good in so many ways: strong traditions of public service, contributions to the creative economy, consumers of the creative economy, heritage, education, etc. etc. Above all they can think critically and exercise an independence in their thought that is sadly lacking in the higher echelons of Westminster.

I fundamentally believe that education is a social good and a social need. I am a fervent supporter of social democracy (though whether our system is more along the lines of elected dictatorship is a moot point). Social democracy should promote the social good and  is paid for and funded by general taxation. If higher education is a social good, it follows that it should be paid for by the state from taxation: it puts back more than it takes after all. Let me give you the most basic, lowest-common denominator example I can think of. For those of you who sit down to watch the telly at the weekend or attend a show, concert, film or play to entertain you so you don’t have to think, should remember that large numbers of people are required to ask the right questions to bring that production to fruition, most of whom will have the degrees that gave them that ability in the first place. These programmes and plays in turn create wealth: just think of how many countries have bought the format of Strictly Come Dancing. Now, do you understand?

Being part of a social democracy means sometimes accepting that there are aspects of our taxation that will pay for things we don’t like very much: Trident, for instance. Yes, we can protest against them, we can write letters to MPs; what we can’t do is withhold the proportion of our taxes that pay for them without forfeiting civic rights, notably liberty. Some people are principled enough to do this, but most of us accept that in order for the country to function, we have to accept a little compromise here and there.

The Browne Report and CSR are not the stuff of compromise though. Nor are they, despite what the coalition says, progressive. Taken together with the appalling cuts to public sector jobs elsewhere, they represent a sustained heavy artillery barrage that is designed to wreck the notion of public service as a worthwhile and noble occupation. I am fed up of hearing the constant refrain from ‘Big Business’ that we academics couldn’t survive in the ‘real world’ or cut it in the private sector, as if this is somehow the only way of life. Anyway, what is this ‘real world’ of which you speak? Without claiming too much for my colleagues, one of the reasons I am in this job was because I was brought up in a tradition of public service, of feeling part of society and more to the point, having a sense of responsibility to the wider community, most of which is distinctly lacking in the rhetoric of big business.

So, what are we going to do about it? The union, as usual, is failing to give clear leadership. In conjunction with the NUS it has organised a demo for next Wednesday at a time impossible for those of us with heavy teaching commitments and who live outside central London to make. Why not a Saturday when those outside universities, but who may well support us, could also join in? The universities themselves will retreat into the mission group huddles, continue the back-biting that contributed to the mess we find ourselves in and meekly accept the situation. Individuals will spend precious time working out how to deliver high quality teaching and research on vastly reduced resources.

In short, I don’t know what we can do, either personally or collectively.  I know I will continue to do my job to the utmost of my ability to the probable cost of my health and friendships, but how long for, I can’t say. Some friends and colleagues are already leaving the profession and others may well become more detached and less collegiate in their dealings. I feel paralysed in the face of such unthinking, anti-intellectual, plain stupid assaults, dressed up as reform, and this angers me still further.

Is it right to just carry on? What kind of direct action can an academic take? Are we, together, prepared to go the barricades? I wish I had answers: in the meantime, I remain gesta in name only.

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6 Responses to Wailing, gnashing of teeth and general anger, but what are we going to do about it?

  1. I feel your pain. Worse, I voted for at least the yellow stripe of it, but, ech, that would be a much longer debate. The worst of it is the student acquiescence, as you say. The time was that the answer to:

    What kind of direct action can an academic take? Are we, together, prepared to go the barricades?

    would have been, well, we may as well because our students are already there! But they’re not, they don’t believe they can do anything any more than we can, and as you say they accept the utility non-argument. Which raises the awful question, why then are they doing a humanities degree if they think it’s useless? Can this not only mean they don’t anticipate being able to be any use themselves? And if so, by all that’s interesting, what on earth have we as a profession been telling them?

    • gesta says:

      I think our students take more notice of politicians than they do of us. I just hope there is a good turnout on Wednesday. Had I been able to rearrange teaching, I would be there.

  2. reivers says:

    I’m not worried about the failures of leadership from the union anywhere near as much as I am about the failures of leadership from the VCs and UUK. After all, the point of the university heads is to make the case for universities and HE; the point of the union is to defend its members. The infighting, lack of clear direction, and total failure to articulate the point of a degree beyond tendentious and out-of-date statistics on career earnings have just been disastrous.

    It’s a consistent failing of UUK and similar for as long as I’ve been a lecturer, and is amply illustrated by the DIUS report on education standards a couple of years back. If, as a body representing HE, it’s impossible for them to make a consistent argument as to the quality of the education and exams provided that can’t be pulled apart by a 5 year old then you know we’re lost.

  3. gesta says:

    Systemic failures all round.

  4. [...] attention. It’s not just me it’s been making angry, either. On the Internet we find fellow medievalist blogger Gesta reaching new heights of outrage and no less a figure than Professor Guy Halsall not just writing on the Internet, but actually [...]

  5. [...] I think people are being idiots, but in the lights of recent events, I’d have to pick this one. I’m still trying to think of a suitable medieval punishment for anyone who starts an [...]

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