The Browne report and its (modified) adoption by the coalition government last week, as ugly as they are as events in the history of the university, are not the ideological revolution that most critics have assumed them to be: they are only the latest symptom of a decades-long reconfiguration of the economic, political, and cultural space occupied by universities – the best currently available Thatcherite vision of higher education, but nothing essentially new. It is precisely because it is little more than the obscene expression of ideas already embedded in government attitudes to the sector and the sector’s own craven and inert behaviour in the face of government that the coalition found it possible to apply the bulk of Browne’s recommendations (Lib Dem claims for progressiveness notwithstanding).
Although it only admits as much by delineating a negative space outside the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and medicine), the government is going to cut funding to humanities and social sciences by 100% (excluding research – for now). The horrific suffering that students will now have to bear for the sake of the general social good that their higher education provides does not even have a shabby economic justification: although universities might cross-subsidize from STEM to everything else for a while, sooner or later they will start to close less profitable parts of the ‘business’ and the loss of humanities and social sciences departments will be counted in the dozens.
Why have Brown and the government devised such a perfect instrument to eviscerate humanities and social sciences in universities? To put the question another way, why does Browne want to silence the humanities and social sciences, to cripple them as a political force? Thatcherism would have an easy response: these people – the ones teaching their students critical theory and writing blogs – are all Marxists and seditionists, an enemy within. The Tea Party in America has similar views about academics. Although this is an exaggeration, there is a grain of truth in it: it is in humanities and social sciences departments, and in the adults that pass through them as graduates, that we see developed critical ideas, and in the figure of these people that ruling ideologies find the thorn in their side.
Universities and the civil societies of which they are a crucial part need both STEM, which the government respects, and humanities and social sciences, which it does not (even though its ministers were trained overwhelmingly in those disciplines). Scientists, for instance, need humanities training to deal with ethical issues raised by their work just as much as social scientists, for instance, need science to learn rigorous logical method in the collecting and interpretation of evidence. Democracy needs the humanities to focus the complexities of interpersonal interactions, economic superstructures, essentialisms of gender and sexuality that enable the legal and social subjugation of billions, and so on. These things are the bread and butter of humanities and social science research and – much more importantly – teaching.
The humanities and social sciences don’t have superior value to science and technology. Scientists are equally good citizens, but in the political, economic, and humanitarian aspects of that citizenship it is not science but humanities and social science teaching – and the development of empathy and sympathy that it inculcates – that makes them so. Citizenship in the broadest sense is close to the heart of what humanities and social science academics do in their research and teaching, and if we put these disciplines in danger it is more than simply theatre, an interest in Radio 3, and an ability to appreciate Rembrandt that is at stake here. We should not be blind to the infinitely more serious threat to our society than a philistine attack on our cultured leisure pursuits.
A dream of silencing dissent is taking huge steps forward in Europe, currently aided by the shock doctrine of a perpetual financial ‘crisis’ which, like the War on Terror, we purblindly permit to curtail our hard-won freedoms. While universities continue to offer no resistance except in what VCs consider strongly worded official statements that tend to offer little more than feeble thanks that at least STEM is still being funded, the progress can continue unchecked, as students and schoolchildren continue to be coshed in the streets.
The more we drift towards an emphasis on STEM to the exclusion of all else, and to the continued instrumentalization of higher education through small advances on industrial involvement in curriculum development and so on (I wish I were imagining this but it is already taking place), the closer we move to having a very productive and single-minded workforce that will sustain economic growth in the ideologically approved areas. Stalin and Mao would be envious, but that workforce would be an increasingly docile one, one insensitive to the ethical and existential desiderata of civilization, and one much less likely to be able to form critical views of the governing ideology. How much better it is to remove the intellectual possibility of challenging power than having to resort to the messy expedient of shooting protesters with tanks. If we can manage to stop giving people a critical education, the police won’t even need to kettle or drive horses into crowds.
Naturally such spectacular scenarios seem remote and the future of our democracy feels secure. But we need only consider public discourse in what until recently seemed like a civilized country, Berlusconi’s Italy, and reflect (see this LRB piece). It doesn’t take all that much to silence voices that are critical of government, and the implementation of Browne’s report will now be an incredibly potent shot in the arm for the enemies of democracy.