Three-D Issue 35: The banker and the basket weaver

Janet Jones
University of Westminster

The UK is lucky to have an incredibly strong and resilient Higher Education sector.

It’s been buffeted back and forth across multiple ideologically based funding reviews, and Augar won’t be the last. Just as we look ahead, we need to look back, and ask, has any one set of prescriptions for our sector really changed the fundamentals?

Blair’s push for higher participation rates in the late ‘90s, the closure of Polytechnics in the early ‘80s both rate as significant. What will be the legacy of this year’s spending review? It’s an anxious wait.

Just a few weeks ago Gavin Williamson, Education Secretary, said in Parliament that it was “important the student finance funding systems remain sustainable and that those who benefit from their higher education should make a fair contribution”.  (Aka – pay significant levels of tax to the treasury while paying back their student loans at lightning speed.)

As he froze UG fees for another year, he promised that “further changes to the student finance system will be considered ahead of the next comprehensive Spending Review.” (Autumn 2021) He appears supportive of Augar’s £7,500 fee reduction for those subjects that don’t provide ‘value for money’, like the Arts and Humanities. He, like his predecessors, has a particular dislike for the study of media. He promised to increase “support for strategic subjects such as engineering and medicine, while slashing the taxpayer subsidy for such subjects as media studies”.  Media studies and basket weaving are often confused as ministers grope for iconic subjects that are, in their view, a total waste of taxpayer’s money.

Ironically, like most ill-informed government policy, reducing fees may have the opposite effect, and increase the numbers wanting to take English, History, Film Studies, Architecture and Photography. Of course, there’s always the prospect of a return to capping numbers for those ‘low-value’ courses. Either way, Universities will be forced to cross subsidise from their Health and Social Care, Business, STEM and Medicine portfolios. Universities without a broad subject offer will need to look to their international, third income or PG markets.

I haven’t the word count here to do justice to the use of the word ‘value’ in this short-sighted policy. Lobbying now focuses on questions around the role creativity plays in driving the UK’s future, reframing narratives, making happier, healthier communities and generating economic growth everywhere. Suggesting that not everyone wants to be a banker, a lawyer or a dentist, and that UK PLC is driven from the top by many humanities graduates, may yet make a small dent in the Government’s thinking.

Demonstrating that the arts and humanities has a strong and pioneering tradition in promoting innovation and new technologies, and that these gains have been rooted in a fruitful relationship between higher education and industry may still resonate with the few that haven’t closed their ears.

We can only keep trying. We haven’t been knocked off course yet, and these threats, in one way or another, have been with us for decades. We are stewards responsible for maintaining the UK’s position as the one the foremost Higher Educations sectors in the world, and as such we must look to the next 50 years, rather than the next election.

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