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Why the humanities remain highly relevant PDF Print E-mail
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Monday, 29 November 2010 12:33

The problem with the current proposals on university funding is that they are, in essence, fraudulent. Billed as measures to reduce debt, they in fact merely transfer it from the government to individuals. That redistribution will be gigantic – rising to at least £100bn over a 30-year cycle – but it is little more than an accounting wheeze. It will lessen the total debt burden the nation shoulders by scarcely a penny.

Second, the proposals supposedly introduce market disciplines, but this market has to be artificially created, and is then to be rigged before it even starts operating. In a completely free market, the humanities would clean up. Faced with a choice between an arts degree costing £8,000 a year, and one in science costing upwards of £30,000 a year, history and philosophy would suddenly become very popular for all except those determined to become scientists.

But it is not to be. The natural cost advantages the humanities enjoy will be erased by continued subsidies, while their disadvantages – primarily their lack of access to research money – will be accentuated.

Moreover, centralised control over how universities operate will, if anything, increase, distorting any real market still further. The new powers proposed for the regulating super-quango amount to virtual nationalisation. Many departments may well close, not because there is no demand for places, and not because students would not pay for them, but because the government will not let supply and demand meet in a market-driven fashion, and will impose huge additional costs through regulation.

This would be fine if it was prepared to pay to make up for the distorting effects of its interference, but it won't do that either. Rather, universities are to be forced into an ill-fitting straitjacket whose main purpose is to triangulate the political needs of the governing parties, not to ensure the delivery of high-quality education. It is the sort of proposal which will do little except give markets a bad name.

Even so, the changes need not be all bad for the humanities. With luck, the whole system may now begin to be rebalanced, and teaching may come back to enjoy the equal status it had a few decades ago, which will play to the humanities' strengths.

For the past 30 years, the humanities have been squeezed into a scientific, research-heavy model of funding which has been hugely destructive. There is no way that they can raise the research money that the sciences can collar and university administrators love, no way that they can justify themselves in terms of measurable contribution to economic growth. Nonetheless, they have been required to try, and have been all too easily depicted as a loss-making indulgence as a result.

Training the minds of the young effectively and efficiently is another matter, and the area where the humanities excel. In this, the students may turn out to be valuable allies. They may be willing to stump up for their own education, they may not be quite so keen to fund the never-ending explosion of administrative costs that have transferred so much money away from education in the past few decades.

• This is an edited version of a lecture given at the Why Humanities? conference, organised by the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities. The full talks are available to listen to here

This is comment. GNM does not necessarily support the views expressed.

Courtesy to guardian.co.uk.

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