By Ben Sladden
Worrying trends have been brewing in academia of late that threaten to undermine the very existence of some of the oldest fields with which human knowledge has been enriched. The humanities – history, classics, literature and philosophy, to name a few – have for years elevated our appreciation of what it is to be human, and have taught students around to world to think critically; and likewise, a study of the humanities has produced some of the most inspiring men and women who’ve gone on to achieve greatness.
Marketisation is the greatest threat to the existence of these fields. Increasingly, university education is being sucked out of the public sphere and being shot out into the void, at the mercy of market forces. With tuition fees set to go beyond the current mark of £9,000, it is hard to see how traditional subjects will fare when higher education is being treated as a mere stepping-stone to a high earning career.
A key issue with this is that students are beginning to think of themselves as customers, rather than pupils privileged to be imparted with wisdom. With the average graduate coming out of university with a debt of £44,000, it is easy to see why students are more inclined toward more vocational subjects, with a promise of graduate employment almost instantaneously.
Along with this, comes the government’s drive for efficiency which damages the internal world of academia. The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is a forthcoming government programme, which according to Times Higher Education “will see the government monitoring and assessing the quality of teaching in England’s universities.” Teaching will be assessed in three primary areas: data on retention (i.e. drop-out rates), the National Student Survey (NSS) scores, and data on graduate employment.
The latter of these three areas is a particularly offensive prospect for teaching staff at English universities. Universities will be under more and more pressure to ensure students enter graduate employment swiftly, antithetical to the intended purpose of ensuring focus on academic teaching. In essence, this will negatively affect particular disciplines – such as English Literature – which tend to be less immediately employable than, say for instance, the Stem (science, technology, engineering, maths) subjects.
The Research Excellence Framework, or REF, is another metric through which the research of British higher education institutions is assessed. The way in which this threatens the humanities in particular is the fact that a key preoccupation of the REF is so-called research ‘impact’. This impact is assessed on how research findings have an effect outside the academy, on “economy, society, public policy, culture and quality of life.”
In this environment, it is easy to see how the humanities face immense difficulties in receiving research funding: take for instance, an historian investigating the religious inner-world of 17th-century East Anglian farmers – it’s hard to see how an academic would elucidate research impact here, in comparison to someone looking for funding in say, a Stem subject.
Furthermore, the REF is putting pressure on academics to produce short-term results; in the humanities, often-times ground-breaking works are long-term projects, such as books, as opposed to concise journal papers. Thus, the REF waters down the quality of research in such spheres. What the REF – and thus government policy – implies, is that academic research is only useful insofar as it affects us in tangible terms.
And finally, current government policy increases bureaucracy that affects academics from all fields. This creates a truly toxic environment in our universities, with once respected and esteemed academic staff driven by the whip of a technocratic-management elite. With the upper tiers of university management being dominated by a new class of the business-educated, with vice-chancellor salaries being on average £260,000 – some in excess of £400,000 – it seems as if universities are now being treated as corporations rather than centres of learning.
This bleak picture threatens to make the next generation of academia recoil in disgust, putting their intelligence to use elsewhere, as opposed to furthering human knowledge. With many speaking of an imminent ‘brain drain’ with Britain’s exit from the European Union, we need to try our utmost to retain the crème de la crème of thinkers in our universities. Britain’s universities are known the world over for their pre-eminence. Do we want hundreds of years of academic rigour to be blown to dust in the name of efficiency?
The humanities are not a field which can be ‘rationalised’ or ‘quantified’ to fit a balance sheet. Investment in the humanities is investment in character, and rather than being confined to the scrap heaps of history, the humanities should be esteemed as sacrosanct to the highest degree.
Photograph by David Morris via Creative Commons