The dangerously narrow outlook of the Browne Review

Lord Browne was born in Germany as it struggled to its knees after the second world war, in advance of an unprecedented swing towards redistributing wealth into public institutions across the developed world. Yesterday his Independent Review of Higher Education and Student Finance was published. It began by saying some very inspiring things, such as:

“Higher education matters. It helps to create the knowledge, skills and values that underpin a civilised society. Higher education institutions (HEIs) generate and diffuse ideas, safeguard knowledge, catalyse innovation, inspire creativity, enliven culture, stimulate regional economies and strengthen civil society. They bridge the past and future; the local and the global.”

Then on to uncapping tuition fees. Tuition fees encourage individualism and are presented as a quality-enhancing measure when it’s clear that tomorrow’s students will be paying more for less. Chimerica and the credit crisis tell us that debt repayments with interest are income for the lender – essentially these fees privatise our national debt. However, deferred and indexed to graduate incomes as they are, it would be wrong to allow the matter of fee repayments to divert attention from a much more radical thing about the Browne Review – its recommendation that Britain stops or drastically cuts public funding for students to enrol on arts, social sciences and humanities courses.

Lord Browne’s Wikipedia entry lists his interests as 17th- and 18th-century illustrated Italian books, pre-Columbian art, contemporary art, music, opera and the theatre, and yet the Browne Review envisions undergraduate learning exclusively as fodder for “high performing, high value added sectors” of a competitive economy. This basically means science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) courses. This is a dangerously narrow outlook, particularly when it ignore the arts, humanities and social sciences. From p25:

“There is a critical role for public investment even if students are investing more. There are clinical and priority courses such as medicine, science and engineering that are important to the well being of our society and to our economy. The costs of these courses are high and, if students were asked to meet all of the costs, there is a risk that they would choose to study cheaper courses instead. In our proposals, there will be scope for Government to withdraw public investment through HEFCE from many courses to contribute to wider reductions in public spending; there will remain a vital role for public investment to support priority courses and the wider benefits they create.”

This is crazy. Fine art graduates, for example, are proven contributors to the economy and highly employable. The Browne report has undertaken to protect employers from having to share the costs of university tuition with the graduates they employ, ostensibly so that they can pay higher salaries. However, according to the University and College Union, “[a] medic[al] degree yields on average nearly ten times the extra lifetime earnings of an arts degree, with the premium provided by the latter making a decision to study based on purely financial terms marginal”.

If we want to play this game of instrumentalising learning for employment, then here is what we could say fine art graduates are for:

  1. They have attitudes and skills that are conducive to innovation
    • Many fine arts graduates describe themselves as boundary spanners, brokers across disciplines
    • They demonstrate the traits of lifelong learners, including frequent use of informal and formal training throughout their working lives
    • They single out their own consumption of art as a stimulus for their own work
  2. Artistic labour impacts on innovation in the way that it is organised – project work and portfolio working are the norm
    • Artistic labour impacts on innovation in the way that it is organised – project work and portfolio working are the norm
    • ‘Crossover’ takes place throughout artists’ working lives, bringing opportunities to learn new skills and flexibility
  3. Artistic labour impacts on innovation through its contribution to the widespread ‘culturalisation’ of activities (whereby cultural ideas are becoming desired as part of traditionally non-cultural goods and services)

As a colleague who teaches fiction and creative writing, sometimes in Creole, yesterday observed to me of her students “They do it for the love, not the money”. Arts graduates, whose courses tend to cost less than STEM courses and whose rich contribution to society receives little remuneration compared to their STEM counterparts, will have to shoulder a debt which is a much higher proportion of their income than their STEM counterparts. This is not progressive.

Martha Nussbaum recently published a book Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs The Humanities (and you can catch her – and me catching her – at the British Academy on 16th December). From its opening:

“The profit motive suggests to many concerned leaders that science and technology are of crucial importance for the future health of their nations. We should have no objection to good scientific and technical education, and I shall not suggest that nations should stop trying to improve in this regard. My concern is that other abilities, equally crucial, are at risk of getting lost in the competitive flurry, abilities crucial to the health of any democracy internally, and to the creation of a decent world culture, capable of constructively addressing the world’s most pressing problems.

These abilities are associated with the humanities and the arts: the ability to think critically; the ability to transcend local loyalties and approach the world’s problems as a “citizen of the world”, and, finally, the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person.

When practised at best, moreover, these other disciplines are infused with what we might call the spirit of the humanities: by searching critical thought, daring imagination, empathetic understanding of human experiences of many different kinds, and understanding of the complexity of the world we live in.”


Bonus links: Chris Bertram. There’s money around – doctors know it, untaxed businesses know it. I dream of seeing higher earners campaigning insistently for their own pay to be cut. I dream of a less pusillanimous response from university managers.

Update – Steve Smith, President of the university heads representative body Universities UK wrote to university heads on Friday as follows (my bolds and links):

To: Principal

Subject: Message from Steve Smith Universities UK

Dear Colleague

I wanted to write personally to each of you to let you know what we’ve been doing today since the launch of the Browne Review and to inform you of the key lines we have been following in all the interviews we have undertaken.

The first point to stress is that we have been concentrating on the CSR more than Browne over the last few weeks, because the potential cuts have been getting worse and worse. You can see from para 6.2 on page 47 of Browne what awaits us in the Spending Review next week. Browne explicitly says that HEFCE will have T[eacing] funding of £700m; the current sum is £3.9bn. This implies a cut of around £3.2bn of state funding. I hope many of you picked up the clear warnings in my Cranfield speech about this potential level of cuts. We have never broken any embargoes on confidential figures, nor have we leaked to the press, but Browne’s figures confirm our worst fears. Cuts in the order of £1bn for research also appear to be proposed.

In that light, our primary response to Browne has been framed by trying to do all we can to replace as much of this lost funding as possible, and to do it in a way that matches increased graduate contributions to decreasing HEFCE funding. We fear that this may not be possible, and that 2011/12 could see major cuts imposed before any income from Browne (or a replacement) comes in.

In everything we’ve said and done with the press, and in all the briefings, we have insisted that Browne has to be seen in the light of what is coming on 20 October, and that it is one way of replacing in a large part the removal of band C and D HEFCE funding, though we are extremely aware of the differential impact on universities. We have always (as far as I can remember) said that we are open to other ways of filling this massive gap, and that we would judge all proposals against the principles agreed unanimously by the UUK Board in May 2010 (see page 10 of our second submission to Browne). There are 9 of these, and Browne and other proposals need to be assessed in terms of these principles, and that is precisely the points we are making. This does not mean that every member will approve of Browne, but we have to evaluate Browne against other proposed ways of how to deal with the massive CSR cut coming our way.

The biggest worry is simple to state: if Browne fails to get through the Commons, or gets un-picked, or gets accepted but only after major changes are made, we will simply not be able to replace the unprecedented reductions in state funding that are coming in the Spending Review. My judgement is that UUK’s primary role is to protect the level of investment in universities. I am trying to do that, and that is what is in my mind every time I speak to the media or to politicians of all parties.

Do let me know if any of this reasoning is wrong in your view. I know there are lots of very different views (and several of you have e mailed or phoned me with what are, taken together, literally incompatible responses).

I hope this gives you a clear view of how we see things today. There remains is a terrible danger of the valley of death becoming a reality for all institutions, and avoiding that is our core concern.

With best wishes


Professor Steve Smith

President, Universities UK

Update 2 – a positive response to Browne which is supportive of the idea of markets, accepting of the idea of failing universities closing or merging (rather than turning round), and does not address the issue of removing T-funding from arts, humanities and social sciences. BenSix feels that students will continue to register on these courses because a) you need a degree to get a decent job these days and b) it is easier to pass these kinds of course. I know what he means on the latter count (would say it is also harder to excel at them) but I think that allowing this to happen will lead to serious problems.


9 thoughts on “The dangerously narrow outlook of the Browne Review

  1. I don’t feel I have followed this story (yet) as carefully as I should have done. Two comparatively small points struck me from what I have read and heard. It was suggested that students might have to pay commercial interest on loans. This strikes me as yet another regressive move. Perhaps those from the very poorest backgrounds will be ok (but students don’t tend to come from these backgrounds which is itself a problem). But those from middle class but not terribly affluent backgrounds will be hit hard by such a move – whereas those who are very rich or have very rich parents will pay everything off quickly and thus pay less than those who are struggling much more.

    Also – if we are effectively moving to a position where students are paying for pretty much the whole cost of their (arts and humanities) HE then that will have a further impact on the lecturer/student relationship. How can I tick a student off if s/he hasn’t read the book if s/he’s paying for 100% of the course? I completely accept that students should indeed see themselves as ‘customers’ in the sense that they have a right to expect prompt return of work, to be treated courteously etc – but I also think that sometimes students need to be told when they’re not putting enough into the class (though personally I’m a bit soft about this) partly because they can spoil the experience for other people if they continually show up late or ill prepared. But if I went on some kind of educational holiday and didn’t prepare properly I’d see that as my choice and wouldn’t expect to be told off by anyone – and students may start to think in this way.

  2. Raphael, coming from a research fellow in a Chemistry Department, that warms the heart.

    Sarah, I agree about the interest rate worries. Clearly these loans are envisioned as income for government, in which case they are vulnerable to interest hikes. In terms of students preparation, your experience is pretty widespread (I am not academic but I do a lot of informal VT work across departments because I’m a sucker). But from what I can gather, very little will change for students at the point of study, in terms of books and materials and money in their pockets. When I did my English literature degree I couldn’t afford the books, because I was getting the equivalent of income support to live on. I have no idea how students studying Art or Design manage currently.

    We need books. Because I work in a department with a tiny budget, my reading is skewed to the journal publications to which we subscribe.

    Two things I think we have to get behind. One the digitisation and open access movements. Gutenberg, eprints, epublishing. Of course, digital format changes the process of reading and annotating, and that is a different challenge.

    The other is an anti-consumerism push. As well as often revisiting why the subject is important beyond employability concerns, this involves making explicit the nature of learning, and not allowing the constructivist underpinnings of (most of) our practice to be misunderstood as an approach of convenience. We need to activate students as resources for each other, and demonstrate how this is relevant to higher learning. We need to talk a lot about what it means to work hard – during a lecture, during a seminar, during reading, and what this hard work yields. We also need to be role models, and treat undergrad teaching as an induction to self-directed, self-motivated higher learning. And have excellent learning outcomes.

    Sorry, went off on one. I’m very ‘solutions-focused’ at the moment because I’m really scared about the future.

  3. seems like the cat is out of the bag. Can’t believe that the media has spent all the time talking about the loans and v little on the real change which is taking away of subsidy for teaching. I have an engineering degree and trust me we should not be ignoring arts and humanities, would be bad for the world and bad for the economy. Especially as in the UK is you follow the STEM route in education there will be very little arts and humanities from 16+.

  4. I agree that anything which helps students meet the high costs of study is to be welcomed. And I don’t like Browne’s instrumentalist emphasis on the subjects which have the most obvious impact on well being/the economy. If you start saying that there’s no point in doing an Eng Lit degree then you can argue back from that there’s maybe no point in doing an Eng Lit A level. Having said that, I fully sympathise with *students* who worry about employability and I envisage that might be something universities will have to focus more on if students are going to be making a still bigger investment.

  5. Pingback: Dehumanising The Humanities… « Uni Tunes

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