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The dissolution of the monasteries

The really annoying thing about this is that Grayling’s central thesis (as argued briefly on Radio 4’s Today Programme) is right – the Humanities and the Arts are a central tenet of a civilised society. Without them, we don’t get Brunel, we get the worst excesses of 50’s concrete shell housing. We don’t get Eco on the importance of culture to history, we get learning by rote and the dates of battles that we won.

So, he’s right. Humanities are under threat, and that threat began with the previous government’s ill-advised review of Higher Education, which was conducted, as far as anyone can appear to tell, in the worst possible manner – decide your outcome in advance, and conduct as little empirical research to obtain the result that fits the political and economic agenda. Then have the current government implement it in as cack-handed a fashion as possible (I took economics for a grand total of six weeks, and even I could tell that imposing a sliding scale of £6-9k in an untested and unproven market was always going to result in one end of the scale being over-weighted).

But, what’s wrong with the proposal for the New College of the Humanities is that it perfectly privileges the ascendance of money over the actual value of education. And worst of all, to my thinking, not money in the shape of the background of the students. The value of a university curriculum is, I would propose, nothing to do with guest lectures by visiting academics and everything to do with the careful construction of a programme of study built to get the best out of every student. No-one is seriously going to tell me that Dawkins, Grayling, Ferguson et al are in this for the good of the nation’s children. This is about money, the acquisition of such, and the market privileging of ‘brilliant intellects’ over the rest of the university sector. I’d be happier with Grayling’s proposal if he and his assembled luminaries were going to write the whole course content, shape the tutorials, mark the work and guide students through what could be a highly demanding programme of study. What appears to be likely is that the Professorial staff will be parachuted in to give high profile lectures on pet topics and then disappear into the landscape until the next time Radio 4 need a soundbite interview. The teaching will be done by unheard, unseen (by the professional media) staff, who will have to cope with the demands of a massively over-expectant student body, whose expectations of their education will have been inflated by Grayling’s kowtowing to the political agenda, not addressing or fighting it in any way, shape or form. I can get a lecture by any of his high profile staff for free online, by paying a fee and attending a public talk, or reading one of their books. There is a value to having those staff on your books, but no-one’s going to be realising that in a university run by venture capitalists.

Universities are complex creatures. They’re not perfect, and god knows they need reform in many, many ways. But they provide a fundamental service to society as a larger whole, and this proposal does nothing to support, promote or service that. It’s a perversion of the opportunity presented by the fees market. If Grayling is really that concerned about the dissolution of the humanities, then perhaps he ought to have thought about how he can help sustain the field, how he might be able to contribute to a future in which you won’t need to risk a small fortune to study something essential to culture and society, and then he might have proposed something very different.


One comment for “The dissolution of the monasteries”

  1. I thought at first that this was an elaborate ruse to highlight the vacuity of government’s higher education reforms. But no. It appears to be real.
    All this will do is reinforce the Thatcherite idea that the arts/humanities are a luxury only available to those with the finances to support it; everyone else should do something productive.
    Let’s hope the students get to study the concept of oligarchy in some detail during their degree. There’s nothing like being able to reflect on ones own place.

    Posted by Andy Channelle | June 6, 2011, 12:57 pm

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