Three-D Issue 35: Augar and after

John Downey
Loughborough University

Gavin Williamson has become a figure of fun as Secretary of State for Education. He is probably the most incompetent Cabinet minister in a government not known, quite frankly, for being able to govern. He is already the comeback kid having served in even higher office. His meteoric rise through the ranks was cut short when sacked as Defence Secretary by Theresa May for allegedly leaking details to the Daily Telegraph of Huawei’s possible role in Britain’s 5G infrastructure. He was also the subject of an investigation by The Guardian who were interested in why exactly he left his role with a rather upmarket manufacturer of fireplaces in such a hurry before becoming an MP and why there is no mention of him being employed by said company on his website. One would think, given this, that Mr Williamson would have an acute sense of the importance of media studies for understanding, amongst other things, contemporary politics but alas not.

On the contrary, he singled out media studies in his statement to the House of Commons in January, when he vowed to slash funding for ‘low value’ courses that receive a ‘taxpayer subsidy’. He could have mentioned other courses that would also have their teaching grant halved (from £243 to £122 per student) in financial year 21/22 because they are not deemed to be strategic subjects: Art and Design, Music, dance, drama and performing arts, and Archaeology. Given that Gavin profited handsomely from his ownership of a pottery manufacturer making memorabilia for a royal wedding, no doubt colleagues in other fields are feeling equally aggrieved at this act of betrayal.

Of course, it is very worrying for the field to be singled out by Williamson even if he is widely regarded as a joke and for the teaching grant to be halved for what it might mean further down the road of this government. We can have faith that many young people potentially interested in studying communication, media and cultural studies will not be swayed by Williamson’s words but less funding cannot be so easily dismissed.

The justification for the teaching grant reduction is that graduates from these courses do not earn as much as those studying other courses. As well as a misrecognition of how we might value knowledge and education in other ways either as an end in itself and/or as an essential resource for citizenship, this is obviously very bad news for fields with relatively large numbers of students in post-92 universities such as ours. If these were just one-off cuts, they would be bad enough but it is likely that when the government does finally get round to responding fully to the Augar Review of post-18 education and funding published in 2019 that the cuts will get worse. Augar recommended the reduction of student fees for ‘low value’ courses that failed to deliver value for money for students to £7500 per annum with no public contribution to make up the shortfall.

An interesting aspect of that review that is little commented upon is Augar’s questioning of the accountancy procedures of universities that do not adequately show how the student fee money is actually allocated and whether fees for arts, humanities and social sciences are spent on the departments where these students study or are siphoned off elsewhere for whatever reason. Many universities have regarded these cheap-to-teach ‘low value’ courses as excellent investment opportunities to pay for expensive courses, buildings, and extravagant senior management salaries. Cutting fees will undoubtedly put even more financial pressure on departments in our field and on the working terms and conditions of colleagues not to mention the quality of student education and experience. Senior management may start to view us as a bad risk rather than as an alpha investment opportunity.

Williamson has a first degree in Social Sciences and made money out of pottery. Augar has a doctorate in History. After making his pile in the City he works as a journalist and is the author of popular books about the workings of capitalism. It is ironic then that they are instrumental in the attack upon arts, humanities, social sciences and indeed a broadly based approach to the value of education. Just imagine that your difficult student in today’s Zoom seminar will pop up as a Cabinet minister in twenty years’ time after having sold lots of commemorative mugs. Imagine that your student will scrap student fees and reinstate maintenance grants. Imagine that your student will value education as a public good and as a resource for citizenship. Hold that thought.

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