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.)