Last month’s Browne report was eagerly awaited by some academics, in the hope that it would allow universities, struggling with funding, to raise student fees. Browne did indeed recommend lifting the fee cap, but the comprehensive spending review has since cut the university teaching budget outside Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) to zero. Universities may thus find themselves even worse off than before, and humanities departments especially so. (Read the pros and cons of this debated here, plus Jean Seaton on why we have fallen out of love with universities here.)
Whatever the real answer to it, “Why science?” is a question it feels foolish even to ask. The question “Why humanities?” on the other hand—as Francis Mulhern observed at a recent conference of the same name at Birkbeck’s Institute for the Humanities—is all too likely to receive the answer “Why indeed?”
The value of the humanities has long been under-represented in public discourse in this country. Attempting to put this right, Stefan Collini kicked off the day’s proceedings with a brilliant call to arms: scholars in the humanities must resist the dominance of economic vocabulary in argument about public goods—that is, measuring the value of Shakespeare in terms of ticket sales at Stratford—and refuse to allow the government’s “quality assurance” vocabulary to colonise their own sense of what they’re up to. Real education involves an inherently risky and unpredictable interaction between minds, he said, so the idea that its quality can be assured is a nonsense.
I found myself wanting simultaneously to cheer and hold my head in my hands. Even my youngest child, who is only seven, has to head every piece of classwork she does by specifiying its “Learning Objective.” So proficient are she and her classmates in quality assurance lingo that all they actually have to write is “LO.”
The idea that school-leavers and their prospective teachers at university form a natural alliance against uncomprehending martians from BIS—in case you didn’t know, higher education is now in the hands of the department for business, innovation and skills—is, I fear, a fantasy, not least because young people spend 13 years in schools drinking in the…