By Michael Meranze
London calling to the imitation zone
Forget it, brother, an' go it alone
London calling upon the zombies of death
Quit holding out-and draw another breath
If Albany’s language departments are the canaries in the coal mine of public education, the ongoing efforts to restructure higher education funding in England are the coal mine collapsing. As James Vernon and Stefan Collini have argued, the Browne Report and the Coalition government’s Spending Priorities Review, if implemented, will mark an effective end of public higher education in England. England’s government is now proposing to shift the fiscal basis of higher education from the public to the individual student and enshrine the notion that higher education is primarily a private not a public good. Moreover, the Browne Report assumes drastic cutbacks, if not outright elimination, of public subsidies for teaching “non-priority” courses while maintaining some targeted support for STEM fields. Under the sign of fiscal necessity, Browne and the coalition government are attempting to subordinate higher education even more to the perceived short-term needs of business under the sign of appealing to the desires of students. Any notion of the centrality of the transmission of a critical tradition in higher education has been lost.
At the heart of the Browne report lie a series of assumptions. First, that public funding is, and must be, reduced in the higher education sector. Second, that the primary good to come out of higher education is a private one—the increase in economic earnings for graduates. Third, that while there is some public good in higher education, that public good resides primarily in ensuring that higher education ensures the adequate training of a sufficient number of people in certain strategic fields (primarily health care, STEM and some languages). And finally, that the success or failure of higher education is most convincingly displayed through its role in the comparative economic development of the nation.
The fundamental proposal of the Browne report is to shift funding from the government to the student. The Browne report envisions both a drastic reduction and redirection of public support: eliminating block grants to universities in the context of an overall decline in government funding of higher education. This loss of funding, the report admits, can only be compensated for by a substantial rise in tuition. Lord Browne, indeed, imagines that tuition in England will have to more than double simply to match the funds loss through government cutbacks. In reality there is no effective limit on the rise in tuition in the future. In order to make this possible, the Browne report proposes a simplified student loan system with the government making available loans upfront and graduates paying them back over a 30 year period at a fixed percentage (with certain thresholds, adjustments for inflation, and interest fees). Any money not paid back after 30 years (due to low income of the graduate) would be forgiven by the government. Browne rejects the notion of private funding for the loans because it is his aim to make the loans available to all students at a government controlled rate. Within certain limits, higher education would be run as a market powered by the indebtedness of students.
In return for higher tuition, students, Browne promises, will gain greater power and choice over their education. Improved advising and more transparency will allow students to choose their studies more effectively. “Students will control a much larger proportion of the investment in higher education. The will decide where the funding should go; and institutions will compete to get it. As students will be paying more than in the current system, they will demand more in return.” (29) But it remains unclear what this advice or these choices amount to in the end. The Browne report appears to assume that the key to student choice should be better advice about the immediate needs of the job market and likely wage-results of different courses of studies. While the report does include some recommendations for increasing universities’ commitment to teaching (particularly in transparency about contact time and information on who actually teaches courses) in the last analysis its notion of career and course choices is an economic and business one. Universities will succeed in their jobs when they better align their graduates with business demand and counseling will succeed when it makes it clear to students what the economic risks of their choices are.
The smoke and mirrors are impressive. As James Vernon reminds us, despite the rhetoric of freedom, students will now “be forced to pay for it through the sort of debt-financing that governments across the world now consider so inappropriate for themselves.” In the name of national austerity students will now be forced to increase their own debts, enmeshing themselves in what may be a 30 year indenture to the state.
But the problems are more than economic—the Browne report manages to dispatch without a second thought any notion that critical debate and reasoned judgments are of public value. Browne would have almost all public funding for the arts and humanities eliminated. His contempt for these fields, though implicit, is nearly complete. As Stefan Collin points out Browne can only imagine either rational individual choice or heavy-handed state body in control of education. As Collini puts it, “It is fascinating, and very revealing, to see how Browne’s unreal confidence in the rationality of subjective consumer choice is matched by his lack of belief in reasoned argument and judgment.” Getting an education is like getting a car; one just has to figure out the correct price point and what color you want. Browne, in effect, is denying the very essence of education—the fact that it can change the student as well as provide new knowledge and that it does so by exposing the student to debate and argument that s/he might not have considered before.
All of these proposals will strike those in the US as familiar. After all, the strategy of transferring public funding from institutions to students began here in the 1980s. Funding by the states has been declining for decades, the insistence that only the STEM fields and medicine are truly important is a common occurrence; and the claims that a high fee, high loan system can ensure access despite enormously rising student debt remains the conventional wisdom amongst higher education leaders.
To be sure, there are differences. For one thing while we have been facing the decline of public support in a death of a thousand cuts, the English government aims to do it in one savage slash. For another, US higher education is far more diverse—the fate of public universities are only part of our puzzle; in England the death of the public university is an effective destruction of higher education as the English have known it. That may be the reason why the public response on the part of higher education leaders has been so much more forceful than our own and why a large protest is planned in London for November 10.
But in the end it is the commonalities that are most striking. The Coalition's plans cuts to higher education are joined with cuts to social services and housing support; here Arnold has insisted on reducing (in some cases eliminating) support for the most needy. The drive for austerity has its roots in a political mindset left over from the 1980s—when in the face of the downturn of the Anglo-American capitalist systems, the assault on government and the notion of a public realm was proposed as a solution for the economy. Today, we can see the even more devastating downturn produced in large part by those 1980s policies. But as we see daily in the US and in more dramatic fashion in England, that assault is once more being trotted out as the solution to our problems.
Perhaps that is why Browne and his comrades have so little faith in the humanities and social sciences; they treat the historical record with evident scorn. We cannot do more than express our solidarity with those in the England. But we need to do at least that; and we should refuse to follow the Brownes and their compatriots in the US in their selective remembrance of the history of the last several decades. Focusing on STEM as the answer attempts to treat our economic ills as a technical problem and ignores the policy and historical roots of the economy's collapse. If we don’t find effective ways to refuse their history we will be unable to refuse the future they seek to create.
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