Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

The British Higher Ed Situation

with one comment

by Luce

Just wanted to point out a fantastic, extremely thorough post from Jonathan Jarrett at Cliopatria on details of new governmental higher ed policies and resulting protests in the UK, where the government has decided to cut its subsidy of teaching by 80% overall and 100% in the Humanities:

This will, ineluctably, mean the raising of tuition fees on new students, a massive consequent rise in the cost of higher education and its consequent restriction to those who can pay to a much greater extent than at present….If you believe in meritocracy, equal access, a level playing field and so on, there is no way not to be angry about this. If you believe that higher education contributes something to a person, and that academic research and teaching are worth something, this is an attack on that belief, a belief which is clearly not shared by a powerful part of the current government.

Jarrett documents protests in Cambridge and Oxford which I think he rightly sees as sign that the UK government has radicalized a student body that had been very sleepy before. Sustained occupations and protests went on for a week at Cambridge a month or so ago.

You should also for sure read an essay in the London Review of Books by Stefan Collini on the Lord Browne report, which has been a key instigator in the dramatic shift the UK has taken in its funding scheme for univerisites, but most significantly in its approach to the underlying value of education itself:

Essentially, Browne is contending that we should no longer think of higher education as the provision of a public good, articulated through educational judgment and largely financed by public funds (in recent years supplemented by a relatively small fee element). Instead, we should think of it as a lightly regulated market in which consumer demand, in the form of student choice, is sovereign in determining what is offered by service providers (i.e. universities).

While I am all for student voice in university government and teaching, a thing that the UK has done much better than its American counterparts with a tradition of student unions, the idea that higher education should pander to the financially-driven demands of its undergraduate population is  ludicrous. Academic critique and original analysis for one depend on an educational system that protects diversity of argument [manifested within a variety of disciplines and offerings] against a contemporary discourse that can tend toward the totalizing. And secondly, if you shape your curriculum according to the perceived desires of your students you reify them into their current incarnations — you take away the opportunity for them to grow. Without that opportunity I’d likely be sitting on the 20th floor of a corporate law office across from Rockefeller Center right now.

Not to get dramatic (though the situation seems bizarre enough), but I’m going to go ahead and quote some Dialectic of Enlightenment on this one:

Subjectivity has given way to the logic of the allegedly indifferent rules of the game, in order to dictate all the more unrestrainedly. Positivism, which finally did not spare thought itself, the chimera in a cerebral form, has removed the very last insulating instance between individual behavior and the social norm. The technical process into which the subject has objectified itself after being removed from the consciousness, is free of the ambiguity of mythic thought as of all meaning altogether, because reason itself has become the mere instrument of the all-inclusive economic apparatus.

[Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (Verso, 1979 ed.), p. 30; orig published 1944 as Dialektik der Aufklärung]


Update: Thanks to Greg for pointing out Simon Head’s great essay in the New York Review of Books, which [rightly] argues that the “alliance between the public and private sector has become a threat to academic freedom in the UK, and a warning to the American academy about how its own freedoms can be threatened”

Texas A&M University of College Station, Texas, provides an extreme example of a teaching factory in the making. For the academic year 2008–2009 each faculty member at Texas A&M was given a “profit and loss account” by the university administration, where the “loss” of the faculty member’s salary was or was not offset by teaching revenues brought in by the faculty member in the form of “semester credit hours.” Professors were in the red when their salary “loss” exceeded their teaching revenues. A professor’s research and publication record, and the value of research grants he or she might have received, did not figure in the profit and loss calculations. So Professor Chester Dunning, a tenured historian of Russia with a distinguished research and publication record, was nonetheless judged to be a $26,863 “lossmaker” for the university because his total salary plus benefits of $112,138 well exceeded the $85,275 he attracted in semester credit hours.


Written by Kristen Loveland

January 14, 2011 at 23:17

One Response

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  1. It’s important to remember that, while fees will triple from 2012, they are imposed post-degree and only once an income threshold is reached. This point is getting missed in the “no university for the poor” political sloganeering.

    While I’m not enamoured of the Browne report, and particularly it’s dim view of the humanities, the neo-liberal takeover of the universities goes back at least 20 years. Problems in the British academy didn’t just start with a piece of legislation the other month.

    Bryonny G-H

    January 16, 2011 at 02:29

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