LGS Thoughtpiece

If you tolerate this… Lord Browne and the Privatisation of the Humanities

Posted: Saturday 16 Oct 2010
by LGS 19 comments

By Martin McQuillan

The pithily entitled ‘Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance’ was published on Tuesday. In short, for those not parochial enough to be concerned by this, it was a committee set up by the previous Labour government, chaired by ex-BP boss John Browne (as one of the many sinecures offered to him, including Chair of the Tate Trustees, in compensation for the homophobia that chased him out of the oil industry, otherwise it would have been him and not Tony Hayward taking the rap for the Deepwater Horizon disaster) charged with considering future funding arrangements for universities and their students in England. The headlines from the report are that 1. The current cap of £3,290 on student tuition fees should be scrapped in favour of potentially unlimited fees set by universities themselves, 2. The current teaching grant distributed to English universities should be cut by £3.2billion with a 100% reduction for the arts, humanities and social sciences. In effect Browne’s committee (which included the Chief Executive of Standard Chartered PLC, the Head of McKinsey, and two Vice-Chancellors) has at a stroke privatised the arts and humanities in England. The committee recommends that the state should no longer have any investment in these areas and that private individuals who wish to pursue such things at their own cost should pay for them.

It is hard to know where to begin with this. There are no workarounds, no accommodations to be made, no temporary crisis to be endured; this is the nuclear option, total and irreversible wipeout. Now, there is a difference between the publication of a so-called ‘Independent’ Review (Browne has now moved on to his next job advising the coalition government on Whitehall job cuts, and his review has clearly been hijacked to feed the ideological attack on the state currently being pursued by an administration that no one voted for) and how it translates into legislation through the torturous process of what Washington would call ‘the pork barrel politics’ of buying off a Lib Dem back bench revolt. However, there would seem to be little to be hoped for in this regard. What is striking here is not that higher education (and the arts, humanities and social sciences in particular) have been targeted but that they have been the first thing to be attacked and in such a spectacularly ruthless manner. The calculation must be that the news agenda will have moved on next week when everyone is more concerned by the fate of ‘useful things’ like hospitals and fire stations in the Comprehensive Spending Review. And of course, if the ConDems cannot be bothered to fund humanities teaching any more there is very little prospect that they will continue to fund humanities research. ‘The future has been cancelled’, as Graham Allen, writing in the context of Irish cuts, put it recently.

Most people will blame the Conservatives; the Conservatives will hope that most people will blame the LibDems. I do not blame either; I expect nothing else from the guardians of class privilege and their unscrupulous carpet-bagging associates. The people who are to blame for this are the Vice-Chancellors of UK universities (with one honourable exception) who have consistently pressed for an increase in tuition fees in order to maximise the return to their institutions. Tuition Fees used to be called ‘top-up fess’ because they were additional to state funding which had fallen behind the real costs of running universities. However, the short-termism of Vice-Chancellors failed to understand that as soon as fees were introduced the university sector would not only lose its place in the queue for, but its claim entirely on, the public purse. The Browne Report hits Vice-Chancellors with a sucker punch: you can have unlimited fees but you can no longer have public funding.

While science and ‘priority’ subjects will continue to receive a teaching grant the rest of us must fend for ourselves. The people who will be most affected by this is not so-called ‘teaching-focussed universities’ but those so-called ‘elite’, so-called ‘research-intensive’, so-called ‘universities’. Dear reader, I spent 10 years directing research in a Russell Group university, I know how much mediocrity there is out there, wrapped in snobbery and shrouded in utterly bogus ‘missions groups’ which allow ministers to divide and rule the sector through its own vanity. If there is no public funding and no funding council to distribute it then there will be no cap on student numbers for institutions. Humanities departments in ‘elite universities’ will only survive by piling students high and servicing them at low costs. The Browne Report does not set them free to compete with the world’s best universities, it impoverishes them and turns all of the arts, humanities and social sciences in England into teaching-focussed universities. Lets not even get started on what it means for the Art Schools and monotechnics; all advances made in funding of the humanities over the last thirteen years have been put into sharp and irrecoverable reverse.

I could make a defence of the worth of the humanities but if legislators cannot recognize their value from the outset then no words here will persuade them. Nor will I make the obvious case for the social mobility afforded by a university education—as if a Conservative-lead administration gave two figs for the education of the lower orders. However, the fundamental reason to oppose tuition fees of any kind is that those who benefited from a free higher education as a democratic right should not when in government (as a result of that free higher education) tell future generations that they must now take on mortgage-sized debts to pay for the same privilege. How this is ‘progressive and fair’, as our politicians like to say, is a mystery. One should not just resist this situation; it has to be refused utterly. Distracted by the chimera of RAE results and QAA inspections, academics in the United Kingdom have not had the best track record in saying no to government in the last twenty years, but if this does not rouse us nothing ever will. And if it can happen in England it will without doubt be rolled out across Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Europe, and Australia. This is a culture war in which critical thought is threatened with extinction. It is time to stop writing the monograph on the footnotes of Henry James, drop the myth of ‘research’ and ‘teaching’ institutions, and do something quickly to save everything any academic worthy of the name holds dear.


  1. At 10:55 pm on October 16, 2010, Nathan Widder wrote:

    The educational backgrounds of those who are going to implement this plan to eliminate all government funding for arts, humanities and social sciences:

    David Willetts studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics (at Oxford)
    George Osborne studied Modern History (at Oxford)
    Nick Clegg studied Social Anthropology (at Cambridge…)
    David Cameron studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics (at Oxford)

  2. At 10:15 am on October 17, 2010, Amy Kenyon wrote:

    Thank you for this! It is hugely important to point out the extent to which this is an attack on the humanities and the ideological and tactical specifics related to that attack. At the same time, the issue needs to be linked to the larger critique of ‘Condem’ fiscal policy. The threat to critical thought needs to be fought, along with the threat to other sectors. The closure of a humanities department diminishes us and reduces our life chances, as do the closures of hospitals and fire stations. So, while it is important to analyse the specifics for each sector, it is equally important to open lines of communication with all who are threatened – students, patients, people in burning houses, benefits claimants… the list grows longer each day. So, anyway… thanks again and I hope you can link your work to the ‘Coalition of Resistance’ and other broad based campaigns against the cuts.

  3. At 2:23 pm on October 17, 2010, Toby Juliff wrote:

    An insightful and provocative piece – thanks.

    I would add that the Russell Group’s clairvoyant response to the Browne Report staggers belief. The research buy-ins airlifted in for RAE 2008 are already being jettisoned for teaching intensive & low-cost courses at the expense of critical thinking.

    ‘Immediacy’ and ‘fiscal sustainability’ have driven cuts in research in Russell Group Universities for the past year, and their contribution – via the 1994 Group and Russell Group recommendations in January and May – signalled what the VC’s (certain honourable exceptions noted) were thinking. They acted on it pre-empting a massive cut in the teaching budget.

    And what is especially staggering is that the recommendations of the Russell Group and 1994 Group (nearly all of which have been taken up) legitimated an attack that was already well under way on critical thinking. Do they feel red-faced about the extent of the cuts? They should. But no, the contingency plan began long ago; the Browne Report merely put it into a cosy document. The Russell Group – who have in the last week announced the ‘safeguarding’ of existing excellent practice in teaching and research fail to mention the past 6,12,18,24,36+ months of redundancies, enforced retirements and mothballing of critically intensive course.

    There will be fewer than expected cuts – the pain began some time ago.

  4. At 6:49 pm on October 17, 2010, noel wrote:

    Time to resist!


  5. At 7:59 pm on October 17, 2010, John Sullivan wrote:

    A large number of young people have just had their future stolen from them. Moreover, by piling debt onto them from the age of 18, they tie them in to the debtor-speculator model that so benefits neoliberal political elites.

  6. At 9:53 am on October 18, 2010, Alistair Brown wrote:

    This article really cuts to the heart of the problem. Making last ditch defences of the more ephemeral, non-quantifiable value of the A&H is useless, given the mindset of government and big business.

    However, in relation to this brave new world that is upon us, there’s an interesting debate going on in the US at the moment, in which it has been shown that the arts and humanities actually generate money for universities. Whilst I utterly resent the privatisation of HE, if it has to come, we have to be aware (as Browne was not, and many VCs are not) that supporting arts and humanities courses might actually be of economic benefit.

    See my post here for links and details: http://thepequodblog.blogspot.com/2010/10/do-arts-departments-make-money-for.html

  7. At 1:20 pm on October 18, 2010, Stephen Connolly wrote:

    The comedian Stewart Lee tells a story about Margaret Thatcher visiting his university that sums up some of this I think:

    “In the late 80’s Margaret Thatcher, the then prime-minister, took a tour of our University. In a library she stopped and asked a young woman what she was studying. “Norse literature,” she replied. And Thatcher said, “What a luxury.” Now, Njal’s saga might not be to everyone’s taste, but in a civilised country surely we can make a space to allow someone to be the receptacle for such knowledge. As a hard and fast rule, we should judge a society by the value it places on Viking literature and the ladies drawn to learn about it.”

  8. At 2:51 pm on October 18, 2010, Ian Pace wrote:

    Read the responses of both Steve Smith – see http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=413873&c=1 – and Wendy Piatt – see http://www.russellgroup.ac.uk/russell-group-latest-news/121-2010/4544-russell-group-response-to-the-browne-review-of-university-funding/ . Piatt in particular does not even mention the fact that this report will lead to the cutting of all HEFCE money for Arts and Humanities degree courses. At the end of her report she simply adds a cautionary note about fee hikes being used as a substitute for government funding.

    Smith and Piatt have been lobbying for this for some time – are we really to believe that they couldn’t figure out the likely outcome? That if the government allows fees to go up, they will just deduct their contribution accordingly?

    Both of them bear a large measure of responsibility for the worst thing to happen to British higher education since the war. It is time for them both to resign.

  9. At 4:44 pm on October 18, 2010, Joe Hughes wrote:

    As independent as Browne’s review pretends to be, it is worth pointing out that it is an uncannily clear reflection of the BIS’s earlier policy statements in ‘Higher Ambitions’:


    The basic argument of Higher Ambitions is (1) we can no longer fund higher education; (2) corporations can; (3) we should therefore reorient higher education to meet the needs of employers.

    This vocationalization of higher education is certainly part of a newer, quieter ‘culture war’. But it doesn’t unfold at the level of values broadly conceived. It is built into the very structure of the current (and previous) government. In 2009 the one department in charge of education, the Department for Education and Skills, was split into two: the Department for Children, Schools and Family (recently renamed ‘Department for Education’) and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

    The fact that the very department responsible for the future of higher education is called the ‘Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ suggests that we can hardly expect it to make room for critical thought, the humanities or the liberal arts in general. But more importantly it means we can’t expect a resistance to one or another of these reports to go terribly far in the long run.

  10. At 9:16 pm on October 18, 2010, Simon Davies wrote:

    But what can we do?

  11. At 9:35 pm on October 18, 2010, AlisonB wrote:

    You’re absolutely right in your analysis of the situation, but what, exactly, should be done? I’ve written to my MP (a Liberal Democrat) and I will be at the demonstration in London that the UCU in their infinite wisdom have organised for a Wednesday afternoon in mid-November, but after that, what action can we take? Personally I’m all for taking the French route of blockading oil refineries and suchlike, but I can’t do it by myself. Calls to arms are all well and good, but need to be followed up with a co-ordinated plan of action.

  12. At 11:47 pm on October 18, 2010, Claire wrote:

    So relieved to read something that is explicit about the cultural implications of these proposals. And I totally agree with you about the need for academics to become militant in defence of their profession – the time for writing papers about the decline of the academy is well and truly over.

  13. At 8:44 am on October 19, 2010, Amy Kenyon wrote:

    Please join the demonstration outside Downing Street tomorrow at 6pm. Timed to coincide with the Spending Review and organised by the Coalition of Resistance, it is an opportunity for ALL people facing the threat of cuts to come together in broad based resistance. It’s important to understand and fight what is happening to the Humanities and universities in general, but equally important not to treat this in isolation to other sectors. The Coalition has a follow up meeting on Monday 25th October and a National Conference on 27th November. Check out the website – please – NUMBERS are so important right now. Everybody in together!

  14. At 5:30 pm on October 19, 2010, Beth wrote:

    Time for a global student/faculty strike. Where goes England, there goes the rest of the world.

  15. At 8:50 pm on November 5, 2010, Dr R.W. Dyson wrote:

    The government has sent a broad hint to Vice Chancellors to close arts and social science departments, and that’s what they’ll do. No more HEFCE quotas; but university administrations can of course impose their own internal quotas on individual Departments. It would be perfectly possible to do this in such a way as to make selected Departments unviable, thereby creating a justification for closure and “reinvestment” in more profitable ones. That, I predict, is precisely what will happen. This is indeed the triumph of the Philistines.

    By the way: has anybody thought about what the effects of all this might be on the Universities Superannuation Scheme?

    All out strike action? It won’t happen, you know.

    Game Ogre

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