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October 21, 2010

Save the intellectuals

Who will be the next H.A.L. Fisher, Richard Crossman, or David Willetts?


In its spending review statement published yesterday the government has prioritised research spending on science, at the expense of teaching funding, which is apparently to be axed altogether for the arts and humanities. This is a high-risk strategy, endorsed by the Browne Review but threatening the very stuff of the nation’s intellectual life.

The members of the Browne review panel included only one academic practitioner in the arts and humanities: this was David Eastwood the historian and vice chancellor of Birmingham University and former chief executive of HEFCE. 

Eastwood must have found himself hopelessly outnumbered in trying to bring the complex realities of academe before a panel external to that world; just as David Weatherall was on the Dearing report group more than ten years ago. Both will have felt like Boethius: trying to salvage the culture of antiquity for future generations while the barbarians destroyed the glory that was Rome.

The Browne panel proposes that public funding for the teaching of most arts and humanities subjects should end. What is going to happen to  students -- including research students -- and to lecturers in these subjects? Moreover, what will happen to lecturers teaching these subjects?

Traditionally, employment contracts for university academic staff require them to do both teaching and research. Academic salaries mostly come out of the infrastructure funding allocated by HEFCE in a block grant. This is notionally divided into teaching and research streams. 

But in the case of individual academic contracts, the proportions are not fixed. Universities have been unwise in claiming that it costs, say, £8,000 a year to teach an undergraduate. The truth is that no one knows.

But let us suppose that the government and the new Higher Education Council decide that the proportion should be 50:50. And suppose some research in the arts and humanities survives the ‘research’ cuts. If a humanities lecturer is also supervising a research student, is this to come from the teaching or research budget?

There is a more fundamental point: if current research students are supported until they complete their doctorates, what will become of those who would in previous generations have aspired to become academics themselves?  It seems there will be no more H.A.L. Fishers or Richard Crossmans -- both Fellows of New College, Oxford; one a Liberal politician, the other a former Labour cabinet minister.

Moreover, if this or a future government changed its “priority” subjects, it is simply not possible to turn one tap off and turn another one on. By the time lecturers in politically-unfashionable subjects have been evicted, the wind may have changed and a different government may be desperate to recruit teachers at the cutting edge of knowledge in these fields. The short-lists may be very short indeed.

The government also needs to understand that evicting academics from politically-unfashionable subjects will itself not be easy, or cheap. In the pre-1992 universities there is quite a complex procedure to be gone through under the Model Statute before academic staff can be made redundant.

At the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge the whole academic community would have to be involved in debating and voting whether to strip out a proportion of, say philosophers or literary critics. It is hard to believe there would be a resounding, “yes”, for any faculty might be next. Individuals may be persuaded into voluntary redundancy but at a price. Will universities be allowed to spend public money on financial settlements under compromise agreements? Besides, that may leave “Swiss cheese” departments without the range of expertise to offer a balanced course in the subject.

Both the CSR and the Browne panel think in terms of an instrumentalism using a Heath Robinson construction of levers and pulleys tied together with string. Has it been forgotten that Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, like many of the British scientists of earlier centuries wrote on the humanities as well as science and were probably better scientists for it.

G. R. Evans is professor of medieval theology and intellectual history at the University of Cambridge

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you is brainy and i like it

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