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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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It has always “amused” me, to some extent, that the Augar review of post-18 education and funding was conducted by a bloke whose name is a near homonym for “augur”, the noun form of which denoted, in Ancient Rome, a religious official who observed natural signs, especially the behaviour of birds, interpreting these as an indication of divine approval or disapproval of a proposed action. In other words, someone trying to predict the future on a shady basis. The Augar review, hanging over universities for many years, looks finally set for consultation. And, quite frankly, the omens look mixed. Here’s some crystal-ball gazing.

The idea that fees might be cut for some university courses sounds like good news for students. But it’s very bad news for universities and the breadth of provision for humanities courses, which are unlikely to see a teaching grant topping them up. There is a horrible double logic at work in it, though, that I can’t quite figure out. If the aim is to encourage people to take STEM subjects, then lowering the fees for humanities courses does something odd. It suddenly makes the English degree more affordable. At the same time, there’s obviously a brand pricing thing going on here, where the cheaper courses look “worth less” because they “cost less”. I suppose they might be planning just to cut all courses to a lower fee level, but then only offer a teaching grant to STEM. In any case, this poses a huge challenge.

The idea here also more deeply entrenches New Public Management principles in English HE. The breakdown into units of activity, with each area being self-sustaining, causes a whole heap of pain and trouble. It makes every discipline subject to the vagaries of current government priority. Yes, the current Conservative government favours STEM. But who is to say that some future government might not suddenly swing back to valuing the arts – even in a nationalistic type vein? (“Study ‘English’ at university to celebrate our literary culture”.) As government priorities shift, the emphasis on every area being self-sustaining implies a level of flexibility that is a nightmare on the ground. Are universities just suppose to shed all of their experts for the current term of government, only to rehire a load of people in five years’ time when classics and archaeology are back “in”? (That’s not implausible: find some great archaeological dig site in the country and suddenly everybody becomes interested again and there’s a national political story etc.)

The other problem is the weird way that academic/intellectual disciplinary cohesion has become the grouping principle in university organisation, despite the finances not working. That is to say: we group the humanities subjects together in a School. And we group sciences together in a School. It seems a way of grouping cognate subjects, of course. But it’s actually then really problematic because we map the finances onto these intellectual units. Then, when a government targets a specific group of disciplinary subjects, those groupings are unable to support one another, because they are all under attack. If you really want to commit to supporting intellectually a diverse range of subjects – as the principle on which a university should operate – and there is some insistence on limited cross-subsidy, you want to group diverse disciplines together organisationally. Business and English, Biology and Archaeology, Chemistry and History. Could this foster resentment if one discipline “carries” another for a long time? Yes, possibly. But I think we need to get beyond the principles of individual accountability and try to think what institutions look like, offer, and support, more holistically.

Finally, all this is happening in the context of a hugely uncertain year for higher education. The English government’s latest policy leaves us in a total mess. By delegating measures to institutions, HE finds itself in the same problem faced by many other businesses (say: hospitality). The rhetoric of personal responsibility means that the student base has been polarised along a spectrum. At one end sit the vulnerable cohort, who do not feel able to come in, in-person, despite having been vaccinated (for many valid reasons). At the other end there are a whole bunch of people who are relatively robust (or at least, think they are), vaccinated, and fed up of the limited life to which we have been consigned by the pandemic. This group don’t want to come in if the experience is to be limited – and may, instead, defer if we aren’t “back to normal”. That causes all sorts of cashflow problems for HE. There’s a whole cohort in the middle who will be happy with some masking etc. of course.

But the practicalities of all this are very difficult. Teaching with high viral prevalence is impracticable. Students will be dropping in and out throughout the term as they are unwell for a fortnight at a time or so. (Or even if they develop long Covid.) Are students to be allowed to come in to class if they have Covid and are infectious? Staff who become unwell will also then drop out at that point.

All of which is to say that we’re into bumpy ride territory…