The current arrangement proposed by the government is something of a mish-mash, stuck between officious government control and free market economics, and ending up being neither.
One of the great advantages the arts and humanities has is its relative low cost – a pen, a goodish library and an Internet connection and away you go. (1) Compare to other subjects – particularly lab based sciences and medicine – and the arts and humanities have an in built advantage. Given this, you would expect a+h subjects to have strategic strengths in the newly privatised higher educational world unfolding rapidly around us.
But two aspects of the proposals radically curtail this strength. Firstly, the government still want to provide teaching subsidies to a number of the expensive subjects, largely the ‘critical’ science, technology and engineering subjects. This has common sense appeal – “we need doctors more so let’s pay for them”. But, vice-chancellors have long been pointing out that this creates a false imbalance – current demand within society sees a lack of skills in the arts, business and the law rather than the science subjects. Moreover, some research highlighted in the Times Higher the long-term futility of trying to engineer societal change by meddling with subject areas. (2)
Secondly, the proposed government cap on the price of a degree further undermines the a+h competitive advantage. If universities are to be charged by the government for going over the £7k cap (a notion that seems crazy to me), then there will be a tendency to try and round out all courses at the same cost around this cap – again compare this with a proper free market solution where the arts and humanities courses could be offered at much cheaper rates. (3)
So the current arrangement proposed by the government is something of a mish-mash, stuck between officious government control and free market economics, and ending up being neither.
So, should we in the arts and humanities actually ditch our leftist banners and celebrate the free market? Well, that’s certainly a pragmatic option. One does not want to lose sight of the larger moral imperative – thousands of students graduating with debts over £30k is not good – but as it seems the coalition government is blind to this, what else can be done?
(Thanks to Tim Hitchcock for bringing these ideas to light)
(1) Some courses are more expensive, however – doing archaeology fieldwork for example.
(3) Although a recent story in the Daily Telegraph mentions this could be around £9k – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/universityeducation/8098534/Universities-get-power-to-raise-fees-to-9000.html