I have been building up to a particularly vociferous rant on the issue of university spending cuts. This is a thorny issue and has myriad complexities and contradictions and I am starting from a perspective of working in the academe which does, of course, colour my opinion. First of all cuts are going to happen across of British society, that is unavoidable. This in itself is largely unfair when it was rich casino-style bankers who go us into the mess and are ones who seem to be suffering the least. I am amazed that there is more outrage in the public domain about this. But in many ways the problem is systemic when you have capitalism on the upturn and socialist welfare state (for bankers) on the downturn.
I digress, back to universities. Universities are, in many ways, the easiest, and therefore the first port of call for cuts. I think this is partly cultural linking to general attitudes towards students and student life. Throughout my university life I’ve been called ‘tax-dodger’ by various working, and unemployed, but not particularly witty or well informed, acquaintances. Yet the fact that producing highly trained people is good for the country, both economically and cultural, is rarely mentioned and then only in passing. However the cuts that propose 80% percent be wiped of University budgets with the students themselves paying for the bulk of their tuition costs themselves is going to cause a major shift in the culture of higher education and thus British life.
First of removing the cap from universities can charge creates and open market. Access to knowledge will become explicitly what one can afford, the upshot being it will be the preserve of the rich. The proposals say there will be concessions for the less well off but this seems as though it will simply be a token gesture. The majority of lower-middle class students will end up leaving university with debts closer to £100,000 rather than the £30,000 they are averaging now. This simple fact is going to put off a huge percentage.
Another outcome will be the entrenchment of a two-tier system. In many ways that is what we have already. If you have Oxford or Cambridge written on your degree certificate, this in itself, provides a huge advantage over those with degrees from less prestigious institutions. Lifting the cap on what universities can charge however will make such hierarchies an acceptable part of HE organisation that will filter into graduate’s work opportunities. Courses will be rated almost exclusively on how much they cost rather than the academic knowledge they provide. The universities that can attract the big money will welcome these proposals (like Michael Arthur did on Channel 4 news when asked about the implications for the University of Leeds). New universities, which cater ostensibly for working-class students, and often provide courses that are considered light or inconsequential, are going to suffer disproportionately. Many of them will have to close departments and even may close altogether.
Another outcome is that the diversity and depth of knowledge provision will suffer enormously. Even before the credit crunch the idea of knowledge and learning for it own sake was becoming an antiquated concept. With these measures every course will have to be justified for purely economic reasons shifting the onus even more onto specific subjects which are deemed as fundamentally important or directly related to a specific profession. This will render subject such as the arts, humanities, social sciences and alike as the most susceptible to cuts. There is definitely a case for students to contribute to there education in today’s climate. However, saddling young people with huge debt before they enter the world of work alongside creating and American style tiered university system that will further fuel a separation between rich and poor and create a knowledge market where certain types of knowledge will always be privileged, is not the recipe for a progressive an equal society.
And finally…it is very telling that defence cuts in terms of percentage are going to be much less than most other spheres of society. This reveals the very ideological nature of the Tories plans in this regard.