The end of the public university in England

Editor’s note: the entry below was kindly provided to us by James Vernon, a professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley. His entry is posted here on the same day a BBC news story suggested that teaching grants “for degree courses in arts, humanities and social sciences at England’s universities are likely to be phased out under government plans.” Our thanks to James Vernon for these informed reflections regarding an historical transition unfolding in England; one with significant implications for those in the UK, Europe, as well many other parts of the world. Kris Olds


I graduated from the University of Manchester in 1987 with no debt. I paid no fees and received a maintenance grant to earn a degree in Politics and Modern History. If my seventeen year old son were to follow in my footsteps he would graduate with debts of at least £50,000 and were he to study in London that could rise to £90,000.  In the space of a generation we have witnessed the destruction of the public university.

The Browne Report released on 12 October, and effectively rubber stamped in the savage public sector cuts announced yesterday, was simply the final nail in the coffin. Under the beguiling but misleading title Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education it effectively announced that university degrees are no longer considered a public good but a private investment.  Accordingly, it is the individual student, not the public, who will pay its cost.  Tuition fees will rise from £3,225 to a minimum of £6,000 rising to a potential ceiling of £12,000. State funding will fall from £3.5bn to just £700m – a total of 80% but a 100% cut in areas like the arts, humanities and social sciences that apparently have no public utility.

The cost of a university education may be charged to the individual student but they will be forced to pay for it through the sort of debt-financing that governments across the world now consider so inappropriate for themselves.   The scale of national debt is so ruinous we are told it requires emergency austerity measures (like all state intervention these days couched in the inevitable military metaphor of Osborne’s ‘war of welfare and waste’).  Students, meanwhile, will be encouraged to take on loans based upon an  imagined future income. They will effectively gamble that the loan will eventually pay-off by enhancing their future job prospects and earning power.  It will be a hedge against their future security.  What are effectively sub-prime loans are guaranteed by the state. Higher education is now modeled on the types of financial speculation that has helped get us in to this mess.

It is thankfully still just about inconceivable that primary and secondary education could be treated in this way –  indeed, Osborne claimed he would be investing more in these areas.   There at least it seems education remains something that serves a public and social function. Clearly something magical occurs when one turns eighteen and your education becomes a matter of personal not public gain.

When education becomes a private investment not a public good the principle of universal provision necessarily falls by the way.  It used to be a central pillar of the British higher education system that all institutions offered a similar range of degrees at the same price (if not with the same prestige).  A degree in biochemistry at Cambridge cost the same as one in cultural studies at Liverpool John Moores.  In making students customers of educational services Browne opens up the English and Welsh university sector (Scotland has it own more sanely run system) to the vagaries of student demand.  Different universities will compete with each other charging variable rates for different degrees depending on the quality of their service and the branding of their product. Everyone recognizes that Departments and programs be cut, many will be reduced to teaching factories where the link between teaching and research is severed, and some campuses will close altogether or be sold off in pieces.

As so often in Britain when business is the model we are told this is how things are done in America.  Indeed, it is.  Last week the State University of New York cut its programs in Classics, French, Italian, Russian and Theater.  In the last two years the University of California has raised its tuition by 32%, introduced furloughs for its workers that represented an effective 8% pay cut and are now seeking to restructure the pension packages of its employees.

There are however real differences between the American system and the model being developed in Britain.  The now ailing public universities in America existed in a diverse sector with privates (ranging from the small liberal arts colleges to the Ivy League campuses with their enormous endowments), community colleges and the rapidly expanding for-profits like the online degree factory the University of Phoenix.  Private endowments and federal programs like the Pell grant scheme enable both public and private universities to at least be seen to maintain ‘access’ to a diverse student body.  Yet even they seem unable to prevent the fortification of privilege amongst those social and ethnic groups most able to take the loans to gamble on their futures. The rest are likely to be driven in increasing numbers to for-profits who offer a faster, cheaper, denigrated, on-line education.

The lessons to be learnt from the American experience are that fees will continue to rise, unequal access between rich and poor will become structural to the system, and the for-profit sector will grow.  Buckingham University, once the only for-profit private in the entire UK, may well become the model. In July, the Minister responsible for higher education, David Willetts, made BPP (now owned by the Apollo Group the parent company of the University of Phoenix, the largest online for-profit in the US) the second for-profit capable of granting degrees in the UK.  With Obama’s administration accusing Apollo and co of using public funds and federally guaranteed student loans to leverage more private debt from students the for-profits are turning their attentions to the UK. Encouraged by David Willetts the for-profit sector awaits in the wings hungry to buy up or ‘rescue’ the publics that will surely fail in the years ahead.

Many politicians and university administrators present the Browne report as a reasonable response to the expansion of student numbers at a time of austerity and shrinking public budgets. Quite apart from the falsity of the choice between rising student fees or reduced numbers of students it is an argument that belies the length, depth and scale of the present crisis.

Firstly, it is not unique to England.  Across Europe and the Americas students and their teachers have been protesting against the same processes: the public disinvestment of higher education, rising fees and levels of student debt, the expansion of management and administrative systems for measuring efficiency or ‘excellence’ of services, the quest for new fee-paying consumers online or overseas, the casualization of academic labor, the restructuring of pensions. Yet, the destruction of the public university in England is widely seen as a test-case where these processes are unraveling faster and further than anywhere else.

Secondly, the storm has been brewing for decades. There should be no wistful nostalgia for a once pure public university. In the nineteenth century the great ‘redbrick’ provincial universities were founded on the alliance between industry and ivy. In the post-war period a good deal of academic research served a decolonizing state uneasily placed in the cold war arms race as the student protests of the late 1960s recognized.  It was hardly news then when in 1970 Edward Thompson railed against the erosion of intellectual life and academic governance by the captains of local industry that ran Warwick University, Ltd.  And, of course, despite the faux radicalism of the new universities that enabled the system to expand after the Robbins Report of 1963, universities remained the preserve of a privileged elite charged with running the welfare state with just 457,000 students in 1971 – 14% of the age group.

If the public university had always been a faustian bargain with industry and the state the rules of the game certainly began to change decisively during the 1980s when I was a student. First came the effective freeze on hiring following the Howe budget cuts of 1981. In 1993 when I was appointed to teach at the Department that had taught me it was the first permanent appointment in over a decade. Next came the stripping of the student maintenance grants I had marched unsuccessfully to protect in the mid-1980s.  And then there were the infamous administrative systems for auditing the efficient use of public funds at universities by measuring the productivity of academic labor: research outputs by the Research Assessment Exercise from 1989, teaching by the Quality Assurance Agency in 1993 renamed the Teaching Quality Assessment in 1997. One consequence of this, consistent with the merging of the former polytechnic sector in 1992, was the growing incentives on a frequently dwindling and increasingly casualized labor force to admit more students and teach ever larger classes. Inevitably these auditing systems not only greatly increased the amount of time academics spent talking or writing about the research or teaching they would do if they only had the time to do it.  It also catalyzed the staggering growth of management personnel.

New Labour only made things worse.  Faced with the systematic under-funding of the universities, the expansion of student numbers (funding per student fell 40% from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s), and the decline in real terms of academic salaries, they answered the call of the last official review of the funding of higher education handed from one government to the other – the Dearing Report. If Dearing enabled the introduction of a £1,000 for tuition (and the final abolition of the maintenance grant in 1999), by 2006 it had increased to a variable rate up to £3,000. The final indignity came with the shift from the RAE measurement of academic’s research productivity – which, in the name of generating ‘output’ had arguably produced a great deal of increasingly specialized and unexciting publications – to a concern with its utility or ‘impact’ under the absurdly named Research Excellence Framework from 2008.  Unsurprisingly, as universities now answered to the Department of Business, Skills and Innovation, impact was measured in increasingly narrow and economistic terms.

Before rushing to join the denunciations of our short-sighted and philistine politicians we have to accept that no-one within the English university sector emerges from this process with much dignity.  Administrators have grown fat, plumping up their personnel, enlarging their office and buildings, as well as inflating their salaries.  Most damagingly they meekly accepted the economistic logics that drove the auditing of productivity and were naive enough to believe that the introduction of fees would supplement, not replace, state funding.  They have turned away from the public they are supposed to serve in the quest for new ‘markets’: professional schools, overseas students, and creation of empires with institutions that franchise their degrees.

The Last Professors of the public university have hardly fared better. They have been only too content to learn and internalize the new rules of the game in the name of self-advancement.  I was one of the new breed of entrepreneurial academics who had only ever worked in this system. I quickly learnt that research grants came to those who spoke whatever language the research councils were speaking in, that one had to recruit postgraduates to generate income, that quantity not quality of publications was the measure of scholarly productivity.  Those who went on research leave or won big grants for research projects were happy to hire replacements and assistants on short-term contracts.  At the opposite end others seemed content to become stars, to play musical chairs as institutions competed for prestige through big names with long CVs of publications, and to see their professorial salaries climb into the stratosphere in the name of their new market value.

The past twelve months has seen many wake up from this bad dream.  As respected individuals, programs and Departments – all festooned in the baubles of research excellence and prestige indicators – have been cut students and their teachers have mobilized. There have been marches, protests, online petitions, teach-ins and occupations.  These struggles have been very local – at Sussex, Middlesex, King’s College, etc – but those involved were in conversation with or at least virtually connected to protests elsewhere in Berlin, Berkeley and Buenos Aires.  It has been on these front-lines that the defense of the public university has begun to be articulated. And it has been the targeting of the arts and humanities in the cuts that has made it possible.

The humanities, along with the arts and even the interpretive social sciences, have become the true test of the public value of higher education. As the recession grips market models of utility and efficiency have surely been exposed as a dangerous fallacy so this is a good moment to re-articulate the purpose and role of humanities and social sciences in ways that justify renewed public investment in them.  We could have expected more from those like the British Academy or Arts and Humanities Research Board that institutionally represent the humanities in the UK. Instead, they have effectively caught themselves in arguments about economic impact and the capacity to aid national economic recovery that they are doomed to lose (see the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Leading the World and the British Academy’s The Public Value of the Humanities). We should not be surprised then that the Browne Report recommends the complete withdrawal of public funding for the teaching of the arts, humanities and social sciences in contrast to the STEM subjects that will continue to be supported.

The defense of public universities is intricately tied to arguments that can establish the public value of the humanities.  We need to get beyond the hand-wringing of those who believe only philistines require the humanities to be justified just as much as the meek reproduction of the government’s own vocabularies of impact and value.  We can and should remind the world that it is our classes that students want to take.  Despite a decade of the rhetorical marginalization of our disciplines in the UK as not relevant there are more studying in the arts, humanities and social sciences (1,073,465 in 2008/9) than in the STEM subjects (829,115) and they are growing at a faster rate (a 28% increase since 2001/2 as opposed to 20% increase for STEM).  Indeed, in all likelihood, the arts, humanities and socials sciences are cross-subsidizing the more expensive STEM fields that teach fewer students in more resource heavy infrastructures and laboratories.

Why then do we face increased demand from students for the arts, humanities and social sciences?  There is no one reason why students take these classes and we do not need a one-size fits all justification of their public value. There are for sure those that rightly view these subject areas as helping them prepare for the world of work without necessarily providing a clear career trajectory in the social field or the knowledge and culture industries.  Students recognize that even vocational training can not ensure life-long careers any longer. Instead they require a set of skills – of critical thought and analysis, of reading and digesting materials quickly, of making presentations and convincing arguments across a range of media – that equip them for a flexible labor market in which they may work across multiple sectors.

We need, however, not stop at these instrumental ends.  We should be gratified to recognize that students are no less concerned with becoming citizens of the world.  They realize that the humanities provide them with not just an education in the issues and problems that face our global society but the forms of analysis that allow us to connect our particular local experiences to sometimes global processes.  They also provide the language training necessary for us to understand the perspectives of other cultures.  No less importantly, given the democratic deficit and seemingly growing disenchantment with our political system, the humanities teach our students the critical skills they require to become active and valued citizens of our democratic life.   Often they teach them that it is possible to think of themselves in new ways, to discover a new identity and to forge around it a politics they share with others that challenges and enriches our democracy.

Finally, the humanities, like the arts and social sciences, offer us the opportunity to think otherwise.  In an age in which the financialization of everyday life appears to demand an economic value is attached to everything we need to be reminded that this was not always the case.  The humanities speak to different systems of value, different orders of pleasure and enjoyment, that we can all enjoy – of imagination, beauty, laughter and wonder.  It is these qualities afterall that make us fully human, that enable us to appreciate what is unique about our own culture as well as what it is we hold in common with the rest of humanity.

A good deal is at stake.  We must defend the vision of a publicly funded university able to support classes in subjects that do not generate economic benefits. Economic utility is not the measure of who we are or who we want to become.

James Vernon

Articulating the value proposition of the Humanities

gyasmeenpic.jpgEditor’s note: this guest entry was kindly produced by Gisèle Yasmeen, Vice-President, Partnerships, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). SSHRC is an arm’s-length federal agency that promotes and supports university-based research and training in the social sciences and humanities. In this position, Gisèle is a key member of the senior management team, responsible for leading and directing partnership development and knowledge mobilization — an important pillar of SSHRC’s strategic direction. She also oversees the management of the suite of SSHRC targeted programs, including joint initiatives, Community-University Research Alliances, the International Opportunities Fund, strategic knowledge clusters, and strategic programming. People with particular interest in the theme of this entry should note that the Sixth International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities will be held in Fatih University, Istanbul, Turkey 15-18 July 2008.


Discussions over the last several decades in both North America and Europe have questioned the ‘place’ of the humanities particularly with respect to science and technology and questions have been posed regarding the value and ‘usefulness’ of liberal arts education and scholarship. Similar discussions have taken place in GlobalHigherEd on the relationship between the Fine Arts, Business Schools and the ‘innovation’ agenda. A recent piece in Times Higher Education entitled ‘Soul Searching’ nicely lays out the crux of the matter, namely, clearly articulating an effective value proposition for the humanities without falling into the trap of facile utilitarianism. Matthew Reisz explains:

There is no shortage of people wanting to study the humanities, so the only real test of the ‘crisis’ is whether academics can offer compelling arguments for the value of what they are teaching, in both senses of that phrase – the importance of the subject matter and the positive effect it can have on students’ lives.

As scholars such as Chad Gaffield and David Bentley have articulated in several papers over the years, it is essential that the foundations of the value proposition for the humanities be balanced between articulating the intrinsic as well as the extrinsic worth of the liberal arts project. This balance, and the link between both types of value, is needed to ensure that the intellectual contribution of humanities scholarship is not lost to potential audiences.

Humanities scholars are well aware of the intrinsic value of what they do. Indeed, a major focus of humanities scholarship is the study of values in and of themselves. The challenge is for the uninitiated understanding of what is often taken for granted, namely, the fundamental importance of languages, literatures and other narratives/texts, as well as philosophical and historical considerations as central to the framing of human consciousness and intellectual activity. Words and narratives have power, enable us to give meaning and are rooted in culture, beliefs and value-systems.

For example, women’s suffrage or the abolition of slavery did not emerge overnight but were the result of the articulation of values juxtaposed with various texts including fiction, essays, legal treatises and other uses of rhetoric which eventually resulted in entire societies being persuaded of the need to change their belief systems, mental models, governance and modes of production.

Humanities scholarship, rather than being a disciplinary exercise, is about approaching knowledge in a certain way; one that privileges a close interpretive examination of languages, meanings, values, culture and aesthetics. Hence, the so-called ancient ‘battle’ between ‘arts’ and ‘science’ is, in many ways, a spurious one. We ought to, instead, see these approaches as complementary types of human intellectual activity.

As in renaissance times, a well rounded, educated human being ought to be knowledgeable about a variety of areas and, of course, be skilled as thinker, communicator and leader. This brings us to the question of the extrinsic value of humanities education and scholarship. To be sure, the value-proposition does tend to be defined in these terms (or not) by the media, governments (including granting agencies) and, sometimes, universities. The ‘development of talent’ is a crucial argument to be made for a humanities education, which is an essential building block for success across academic, public, private and not for profit sectors.

Interesting trends to note in the Humanities

There are three profound trends to note in the humanities that warrant being mentioned as they provide concrete examples of the value-addition of the humanities in far-reaching and innovative ways:

  1. Expansion of the traditional ‘western’ humanities canon: As scholars such as Leslie Monkman and Sachidananda Mohanty have been writing for many years, the development of a corpus of work which ought to be known by the “educated” is a moving target wrought with political and historical implications. We are fortunate now that the boundaries around what ought to or can be studied and known in the humanities have expanded considerably over the past thirty or forty years resulting in a cornucopia of literature, theatre, poetry and other texts that have been (re)’discovered’, (re)interpreted and made more available to a wider audience. This expansion is thanks, in part, to the growth in information and communication technologies, which brings us to our next example.
  2. Digital humanities: the rapid advancement in computer technology, in particular the internet and the World Wide Web, has led to ‘mass collaboration’ of a scale and complexity never before seen in the humanities. The use of new technologies in the humanities increases the capacity for scholars to do their work more quickly while still allowing for the subtle ‘layering’ of analysis, interpretation and argumentation. It has thus also resulted in humanities scholarly work being made accessible to a much wider audience – including those outside the ‘typical’ humanities disciplines and, indeed, those operating in sectors of society other than academe. This brings us to our final example of exciting developments in the humanities.
  3. Campus-Community linkages: When Earl Shorris piloted the first Clemente course in the humanities for low-income participants at the Roberto Clemente Family Guidance Center on East 13th Street in Manhattan, in 1995, an international trend was born. An article on his work in Harper’s magazine inspired students around the world. Examples include the University of British Columbia’s Humanities 101 initiative, the University of Ottawa’s (St. Paul’s Campus) Discovery University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Humanities Exposed (HEX) Program [logo below]. Similar, in some ways, to the Philosophers’ cafés which emerged around the same time, the Clemente course and its offshoots provide renewed vigour for a humanities contribution to the campus-community dialogue.

hexlogo.jpgIt is a thoroughly exciting time to take an interest in the humanities. To be certain, there are challenges associated with maintaining and increasing public and private resources for the humanities to thrive. However, the cornerstone to establishing a successful strategy, as Mary Crossan argues, is the development of a solid value proposition. This includes effective rhetorical strategies for those committed to the ‘interpretive and linguistic turn’ – as part of a framework for strategic analysis and action – explaining why their scholarship and teaching are so very important to various constituencies across the public, private and not-for-profit sectors with whom partnerships and alliances are essential.

Gisèle Yasmeen