Fred Ott's Sneeze (film by William K.L. Dickson)
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As chance would have it, I was visiting the UK when a phased reduction of £2.9 billion (roughly 40%) in public higher education funding was announced in the press.  This was troubling enough, but a report in Inside Higher Education made passing mention of a particularly chilling characteristic of the anticipated cuts:

The Treasury says in a statement that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which oversees higher education, will ‘continue to fund teaching for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. However, no mention is made of other subjects.

This announcement followed on the previous week’s public release of  the Browne report (official title: “Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education in England”), which included recommendations that tuition caps be lifted for all public universities, allowing them to charge whatever rate the market will bear, and that tuition be charged retroactively, once the graduate has begun making at least £21,000 annually (at which point he will pay 9% of his income until costs have been recouped with a modest amount of interest, or for 30 years, whichever comes first).

The response in Britain to both the Browne Report and the announced cuts has been predictably intense and polarized.  Representatives of research universities with a strong STEM focus were quick to applaud the report and its recommendations, while liberal arts institutions and their faculties reacted with varying degrees of horror.  James Vernon, a British-born history professor at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote a piece for Inside Higher Education titled “The End of the Public University in England” in which he stated flatly that “we have witnessed the destruction of the public university.”  Writing in the Guardian, Carole Leathwood suggested that a better title for the report would have been “Securing a Sustainable Future for Privilege and Elitism.”  Martin McQuillan, Professor of Literary Theory and Cultural Analysis and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Kingston University, characterized the Browne proposals as “the nuclear option, total and irreversible wipeout.”

Not all responses have been so strident, however, either in support or in opposition.

Stefan Collini, in a critical but sober and sharply argued piece for the London Review of Books, points out some significant defects in England’s current system of higher education funding, while at the same time deftly unpacking and critiquing the implicit (and sometimes explicit) economic assumptions that underlie the Browne report.  The fact that he does so from a rather baldly leftist perspective should be no more surprising than the more sanguine (but also coolly analytical) tone taken by the reliably free-market-oriented Economist in its two pieces of coverage so far.

Here in the U.S., reaction has been relatively quiet, which I confess surprises me a bit. Two pieces in the Chronicle of Higher Education described the report and responses to it in a dry, muted tone, and as of this writing only one of those articles has attracted any reader comments — five in total, two from commenters in the UK, all of them reasonably characterisable as grumpy but resigned.

The New York Times’ coverage has been similarly unemotional, whereas the Nation devoted its coverage not to the particulars of the budget cuts or the Browne proposals, but rather to a nearly giddy analysis of the texture and character of the subsequent street protests.  Given both the breadth (virtually all humanities and social science programs at public universities seem to be ready for the axe) and the depth of the anticipated cuts in Britain, and given that the economic circumstances leading to these cuts are broadly shared by the U.S., I suppose it is possible that the relative quietude on the part of American pundits is due to a combination of shock and dread.

But part of the explanation surely lies in the fact that in the U.S., tuition at both public and private institutions of higher education has long been determined (for better or for worse) by the marketplace, and we take it as nearly given that most students will finish their college careers with significant debt.  Those on the political left are mostly resigned, while those on the right tend to be quite happy treating education as one more economic good whose costs and benefits should be evaluated prior to purchase by what they presume to be rational consumers.  It is also my understanding that American colleges and universities, even public ones, derive funding from a broader range of sources (including states, of course) than do their counterparts in the U.K., which means that dramatic cuts in federal funding would not be felt quite as keenly here as they will be in Britain.

However, should the American federal government enact a 40% cut in its funding of higher education, we can obviously expect the tone and volume of the conversation here to change immediately and drastically.  And if the U.S. economy does not quickly begin to show more vigorous life, I suspect that such cuts may be inevitable — and that the cuts here will be distributed along lines very similar to those in the U.K.  Prominent voices already decry the relatively skimpy support given to humanities and social science programs in the U.S. (both by the federal government and by individual institutions).  At the same time, one could argue that if and when this happens, the academic disciplines will have none to blame but themselves.  For several decades now, we have watched as postmodernists and critical theorists in the humanities and social sciences have, in many cases, replaced rigor with amusing but often intellectually trivial wordplay, or have turned the study of literature into a sandbox for reductive political sloganeering, or have shown themselves unable to discriminate between scholarly argumentation and gibberish.  At the same time, graduate schools of education are widely perceived to be failing in their fundamental missions, and other social science programs are experiencing their own crises.

I realize this assessment may sound harsh, and that it does not acknowledge the rigorous and high-quality work done by many American (and British!) humanists and social scientists; however, the problem is real and widespread and quite thoroughly documented, and it puts the humanities and social sciences in a weak strategic position in an environment of drastically straitened resources controlled by increasingly right-wing state and federal legislators.

Britain has sneezed, and I see no reason to be confident that the U.S. will be spared catching the same cold.

(Editor’s Note: This post is a slightly edited version of an editorial Rick published under the same title in the 9 December 2010 issue of Serials e-News.)

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Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson is University Librarian at Brigham Young University. He has worked previously as a bibliographer for YBP, Inc., as Head Acquisitions Librarian for the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, as Director of Resource Acquisition at the University of Nevada, Reno, and as Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah.


4 Thoughts on "Britain Has Sneezed: Will the U.S. Catch a Cold?"

My guess is that a 40% cut in higher education funding in the U.S. would have much less of a dire impact than it will in Britain, for reasons you have already given, among them most importantly that public education is mainly funded by state governments, not the federal government. Most federal government money that helps universities goes to support scientific R&D, often defense-related, and I don’t see this kind of funding as vulnerable to Republican budget-cutting as you do. The budget of the NEH that goes for research support is paltry already, so cutting it by 40% would have no drastic effect. The NEH budget has yet to recover to the point it had before the Reagan Administration slashed it in 1995. Social sciences will be affected some by cuts in the NSF budget, but again not critically. The liberal arts in the U.S. have long gotten used to lack of support at the federal level, and this has little to do with backlash against postmodernist “gibberish,” which is a theme journalists like to play up but not what really drives budget-cutting.

I am not clear what we even mean by federal funding of universities in the US. Scholarships, loans and fellowships are a big part of it and these fund students, not disciplines Research grants fund researchers and are almost entirely STEM, including social STEM. It is not at all clear that NSF’s social science research will be cut before DOE’s physics research. There are many more economists on Capital Hill than physicists.

Note that very little university research is defense related. NIH get over half the basic research budget. DOD’s basic research funding is tiny. As you say, federal funding for the humanities is already beneath notice.

It sounds like the British system is so different from the American that a useful parallel cannot be drawn. What this has to do with scholarly publishing is also unclear.

Hi, David —

You raise a good and important point (one which I didn’t develop with enough nuance in my post) about the structural differences between HE funding in the US and the UK. Granted that HE funding is nowhere near as centralized in the US, I think the larger point remains: the economic problems that have led to cuts in the UK are not exactly absent in the US, and I see no reason for confidence that their impacts won’t be felt (though unevenly) at the state level. (The more I think about it, the more I think I should have said “American states” where I said “the American federal government.”)

Of course, even at the state level HE funding is not usually tied to disciplines — my point in that regard is that if a state research university’s funding is cut by 40%, it seems likely to me that the humanities and social science areas will be hit the hardest, just as they will be in the UK with its cuts in centralized government funding.

Yes, you’re right, David, that defense-related R&D is much less than it once was and doesn’t match up to NIH funding. It has been pretty important to Penn State, though, at its Applied Research Center that is heavily funded through the Navy, thanks in large part to the earmark savvy of the late Rep. John Murtha, who was the senior Democrat on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.

There is little connection between federal funding and scholarly publishing, apart from some grants that a few university presses have gotten through the NHPRC for publication of the founding Fathers Papers. The NEH long since stopped giving publication subventions to university presses.

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