Low Memorial Library, Columbia University, New York, USA

Utilitarians at the gate

Government and the purpose of higher education

Artillery Row

This has not been a good month for arts and humanities education in Britain, and it’s about to get much worse.

Prompted by a directive from Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, the Office for Students (OfS) announced plans to halve its subject funding for courses in the performing and creative arts, media studies, and archaeology for 2021/22, with further cuts to follow in future years. These cuts will be used to finance “strategically important subjects” including STEM and healthcare as part of the government’s “levelling-up” agenda.

It betrays a utilitarian view of higher education – of universities not as places of enrichment but as undifferentiated factories churning out workers of a certain type

The OfS proposal fails the basic test of internal logic: it notes that the subjects on the chopping block “play an important role in supporting parts of the UK employment sectors, economy and cultural life”, and that “many of the subjects… are relevant to professions in the government’s shortage occupations list”. The creative industries contributed £115.9 billion to the UK economy in 2019, and a February 2020 government study noted that “the creative industries sector is growing more than five times faster than the national economy”. Indeed, the creative industries have been growing faster than the UK economy as a whole every year since 2011. If the government wants to “level up” and “build back better”, it could do far worse than investing in the talent needed to rebuild one of its fastest-growing economic sectors.

But so what? Defending the arts and humanities in purely economic terms is a trap generations of academics and commentators have fallen into. Arguing with the Education Secretary or regulator of the moment over the self-defeating cuts of the moment does nothing to strike at the root of the problem: a terminally misguided understanding of the value and purpose of higher education.

Williamson’s guidance letter to the OfS is remarkable for what it does not say. Replete with hackneyed catchphrases like “value for money” and “excellent student outcomes”, it betrays a utilitarian view of higher education – of universities not as places of enrichment or self-discovery or even primarily of learning, but as undifferentiated factories churning out workers of a certain type, to be slotted into particular places in the economy based on “strategic labour market need”. Value for money and excellence of student outcomes are to be measured in crude econometric terms – as employment rates and starting salaries rather than wisdom, happiness, or the ability to think.

Of course, this model of higher education didn’t emerge from Gavin Williamson’s forehead fully formed and fully armed. This pound-shop Athena sprang into being with the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, was nurtured by the creation of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in 2008, and achieved its current form with the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, which created both the OfS and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), which funds academic research. For thirty years, this much-maligned legislation has driven the marketisation and commodification of higher education, with disastrous consequences.

Case in point: research, the primary pursuit of many academics. The Research Excellence Framework is ostensibly designed to measure research quality at UK universities. This enormously expensive and time-sucking exercise is known by academics to be “an exercise in bad faith” incentivising superficial and derivative publications rather than ground-breaking research in the sciences and humanities, which has uncertain outcomes and often takes years to develop. A derivative 10,000-word academic article might take a month to write alongside teaching and admin; a seminal 100,000-word monograph might take four years. The REF assigns them the same value. Ironically, the REF’s focus on “real-world impact” beyond academia may also encourage the very academic political activism conservative politicians love to hate.

The government’s response to the well-known structural failings of the REF has been to introduce the TEF – more of the same, but now for teaching rather than research. The TEF is likewise known to be intrinsically faulty, a fact which has not halted its implementation.

Marketisation of higher education has led to the rise of the zero-hours contract for academics and the practice of “REF poaching” – temporarily hiring academics to have them on the books just long enough to contribute to a university’s REF submission, and usually no longer. This has had a disproportionate effect on junior, often female academics. On a recent careers conference call, the head of UKRI informed PhD students and early career researchers that they would be well-advised to look for work outside the higher education sector – at so-called “alt-ac” roles – if they desired steady and remunerative employment. Clearly there is a failure both of imagination and of regulation when the UK’s research funding body tells talented junior academics that there is no future for them in higher education.

Forming citizens requires excellent teaching and research in all fields of human endeavour – especially in the arts and humanities

There is no way to tweak or rearrange existing higher education legislation to solve these problems. To have any hope of making universities work for our students and our society, we need to return to a much longer-standing and fundamentally conservative view of the purpose of higher education: to form citizens of talent, learning, and character who understand the world and can help shape it in positive ways. Higher education is valuable precisely to the degree that it produces such outcomes.

Forming citizens requires excellent teaching and research in all fields of human endeavour – especially in the arts and humanities: the things that make us truly human. A student who develops a love of history or music or literature, who learns to speak another language, or who finds their thinking challenged by new ways of seeing the world has been enriched, whatever their starting salary – and all of us reap the reward.

And yes, there’s also an economic argument. Humanistic education makes people better at their jobs, whatever career they choose. The best software developers I’ve ever employed have had degrees in history, music, and psychology – not computer science. At university they learned how to learn, and afterward chose software as a profession. That made them far more valuable in the ‘real world’ than someone pushed into STEM by government mandate.

The government’s blinkered “strategic priorities” are hardly Philistine – and anyway, archaeology demonstrates that the Philistines had a flourishing arts sector. Rather, they reflect the scattershot short-termism of people who have never sat down to consider the real value of higher education, which goes far beyond the economic. Let us now do so together, if we genuinely wish to “level up” our society.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover