When I came to work in Cardiff in 1994 and was soon invited to take over control of the School budget, it became clear that we had a serious leak in our funding. Because of the educationally admirable University of Wales practice whereby students take three first-year subjects, only one in their Honours choice, we scored for funding only one third of our intake of some 150 students and were in a permanent funding deficit by no means plugged with second- or third-subject students from other degrees.
We increased those extra numbers through new courses and good teaching, but we remained in overall deficit. Though we had neatly reduced the outflow through the hole in the bath, the rate at which it filled had slowed down: each year's `efficiency gain' reduced funding, exacerbated by the occasional revision in funding, which slurped money into other subjects, usually sciences.
Unfortunately this unresolvable leak is not just caused by casual malice; it's a symptom of a larger systematic debilitation that as far as Britain is concerned is only slowly extending its hold. The years I had previously spent in Australia had given me a close-up view of a characteristically more explicit version of the humanities bath problem.
Australians are extremely efficient people, partly because they believe in the future, not the past, and partly because they design new administrative systems from the ground up, without English-style interventions from interested parties like titled landowners, Oxbridge vice-chancellors or (once upon a time) trade union leaders. As regards educational practice, Australia is in general about ten years ahead of Britain (it's twenty in sport) in matters like institutional mergers, student loans, internal funding devolution (destroy the strong deans) and, crucially, starving the humanities.
I have been very busy writing references in the last two years for senior and very able friends who have suddenly decided to leave Australia. Many of them are good enough to walk into major jobs over here or in North America. Edinburgh, East Anglia, Open University, Chicago, British Columbia, Hong Kong, Cardiff is where most of the best of the 1970s generation of Australian-born intellectuals are now working. The motive in all the cases I have talked to has been the drastic loss of funding, and the consequent impact on morale, professional freedom and general conditions that occurred in the Australian universities from about 1987 onwards.
In Australia it was a right-wing Labour government (ahah!) that made the decision to save significant sums on university funding by introducing student loans, targeting research funding into approved areas and pressing universities towards private sources of finance. That sounds familiar now. Then the right-wing conservative government that followed (remember they're ten years ahead) was able to intensify the pressure, with costlier fees, straitened research funding except in the mercantile-approved areas and, the most telling blow of all, a demand that all areas of the university should derive 20 per cent of funding from private sources.
The Dodgy and Shonky chair of Real Estate Management was easy, and there were discoverable pills and powders enough to keep any faculty of medicine floating high. For arts, though, it meant selling places: departments were invited to reserve room either for overseas students or -- this was what drove many of my friends out -- for students who had not made the grade academically but whose parents could afford the full fees. If you could not find those people, or did not want to, then you stood the funding cut, lost untenured staff, failed to replace retirements, saved on paper, phones and so on: the full down--the-plughole effect.
The results have been obvious on staffing, promotion, morale, quality. Stuart Macintyre, Professor of History and Dean of Arts at Melbourne, a man of some subtlety and know-how, has recently given a dean's inaugural lecture entitled `The Arts in the Occupied University' in which he, in all seriousness and in formal public, likens Australian humanities academics to the occupied French in the last war. He sees the forces of monetarist management as firmly installed, deeply hostile, and needing to be resisted by dedicated forms of cunning and sabotage. The university has not yet published the lecture for sale.
We have ten years at most. I see clear signs that, in a characteristically crab-like, thoroughly decently obfuscated, best of all possible worlds and it's not my decision kind of way, the British system is moving in just the same direction. Control of research funding is already in place, though the system by which money is allotted to departments through a peer-established grading is much broader-brush than the Australian practice, where individual researchers, or teams, are funded directly. But that inherently covert system already applies here through the research councils, and I expect it to be developed -- the upgrading of the old British Academy to a para-council implies that such plans are in mind for Humanities as well as other subjects. It is much easier for government to control funding through trusties at the councils than in a blurring chain of command through RAE panels, then VCs, deans and departmental heads.
Funding cuts are of course already in operation, through `efficiency gains' and tinkering with the fee per student. But there is a deeper-laid problem that recent Australian experience lays bare and can be read into events of the last few years, notably the distribution of the massive pre-election spend in summer 2000. The treasurer, it will be remembered, poured funds into all areas, but universities were merely relieved from the 1 per cent efficiency gain. This sums up government's assessment of the public evaluation of universities, and the very low claim they have on any significant funding in the near (and not so near) future.
The result of the monetarist triumph throughout the West, and much of the East as well, is that education is not seen as a self-expressive good in itself, nor as a means of generalised and transformative social engineering (those two somewhat different points on which the liberal consensus used to combine), but as a purchasable entity for self-improvement -- a cerebral exercise machine. With that view, out goes massive public funding for student costs, and in comes self-funding, with all its attendant impact on the less privileged of all ages. The corollaries of that, towards top-up fees, consumerisation of degree study, bureaucratisation of delivery systems of education, are all working their way into and through British universities now.
But the devil is not in the detail: there is, rather, an infernally large-scale shift of position that submerges universities in the business economy rather than, as in the past, letting them stand as separate professional entities, self-governing and publicly funded. What has happened in Australia, and is close to happening in Britain, is that universities are now not really different from schools, just an arm of the training industry -- and although massive numbers of students go into forms of public service, the rhetoric, guided by monetarism, is that it is business, private enterprise, which is the genuine and proper beneficiary of all this training, the only model of value. Profit, especially international profit, is not discussed as part of the equation, and there is no sign of those who profit being interested in any significant contribution to the system except in a limited way with very specific controls: the philanthropy of North America, antiquely linked to a highly valued public educational sphere, has not existed and will not now develop in Britain (or indeed Australia).
Obviously the idea of training for work will seem most rational in the so-called `professional' faculties like Law, Medicine, Pharmacy, Architecture (though I notice the word `professional' is not used much in governmental parlance: it smacks too much of self-government). But these are not in fact
large numbers over the whole system: the bulk of the students remain in the humanities and social sciences, and increasingly pressure is placed on departments to explain what skills they offer or, in the new discourse, sell, to their students.
Most humanities and social studies departments, notably English, go for a very general `skills' description, focusing as in the new benchmarking document on the words `communication' and `analysis'. The latter is a delicate matter: it is meant to be read by business and government as `capable of understanding information and working out what to do about it'. But to most academics it means, `likely to criticise the bastards who've got us into this state'. Contemporary profession-pressured students may not see it the same way as their teachers.
Or anyone else. There are few friends in the nineties or noughties for the idea of a self-confident, self-governing, publicly funded, wide-ranging source of intellectual critique. What could be more shameful than `interest-driven' research? The term is a genuine taboo in Australia. Both those who are elected by the people (and despise them) and those who sell to the people (and despise them) would like academics to be down in the mercantile mud as well.
My Australian friends are not only looking for jobs elsewhere or retiring early: they are also, true to their stars, analysing the situation. In his searching essay `The Future of Disciplines: A Report on Ignorance', Ken Ruthven, then Professor of English at Melbourne University, now retired (early), not only discusses the negative effect of external pressures on the humanities but reflects on possible responses.
He and several of my Australian correspondents have no faith in the warm positive-value argument about a well-rounded humanities education. That notion has received searching criticism from critics (including the Australian theorists) over the last thirty years as being a liberal grand narrative that was actually the validating ideology for a whole range of covertly authoritarian practices of which sexism, racism, colonialism and orientalism are only the most obvious.
So in lieu of that outworn cultural-values defence, what Ruthven argues is that departments can use their newly developed skills for a new type of intellectual social responsibility: he cites the way in which, under Tony Bennett (now over here), Griffith University used its strong Cultural Studies position to develop a Cultural Policy wing which advised town councils and even governments on how and where to develop a wide range of cultural programmes. Without giving up its critical edge, it also pragmatised its insights. The same thing is now happening at Melbourne itself as Simon During (who recently turned down a job over here) has brought into place a new degree in Media and Communications which will coexist with English Literature and will no doubt, in the best traditions of that argumentative city, engage critically with sociocultural issues as a part of the generalised `training' element in the curriculum.
Ruthven is not sanguine, but he is suggesting that if you are quick on your feet and learn the language of strategy, there are some areas where intellectual rigour can be legitimately brought together with service to agencies outside the confines of the campus and its curriculum.
This is, at least, planning for the next war. But how far might those possibilities be applicable in Britain? There are some important structural differences. Just as British universities are not so open to intervention by government for the dubious reason that we shelter under the prestige and negativity of Oxbridge (so it's also goodbye to degree transfer systems, a rational academic year, nationally coherent staffing levels), so university relationships with government and business are largely regional and piecemeal -- perhaps all the more organic for that, but also very limited and limiting. Any developments worth making in humanities would be major and recurrent undertakings, not just boutique links with the local museum. But the Ruthven strategy may well be valid in certain places.
There is a less coherent response, recommended by some old hands among the Australians. Keep your head down, your powder dry, and wait for the wheel to turn. The problem is, the metaphor can delude you: Kinnock waited all those years believing politics was a pendulum, but it was just a sandbag all the time. However, what seems patently to be on the side of silence and cunning (leaving exile to those who can get a job overseas) is the obvious, widespread, and apparently deep-seated interest in the humanities disciplines. In our allegedly free market economy we have, for university places, a positively Stalinist command economy, so that at Cardiff English has recently been chock-full, fined if it goes over, and so refuses students with AAC (because we asked for ABB), while Chemistry and Maths hunt far down the alphabet. If they were businesses, wouldn't they have to close? Couldn't we buy chemistry from abroad, like coal?
But all this tells you is that English studies are too popular to disappear, not that they'll be adequately funded. Governments and university administrators willing to provide only minimal funding will still see the subject as a way of keeping up intake numbers while handling them cheaply. I doubt very much if the genuine popularity of the subject is going to be more than a guarantee of a continuing but oppressed existence, like having a coalmine in your village.
If, as seems very likely, both top-up fees and an `external funding' component come in (but hush till after the next election), then a few humanities departments will prosper -- those which can squeeze wealthy businessmen and alumni to at least some extent, can obtain worthwhile numbers of overseas students (and provide the massive support they often need) and will be in a position to sell their own places to underqualified students if they wish to.
But the bulk of the departments will suffer steadily, lose staff, endure rationing on expense items (paper, phone-calls, travel etc.), and there will very soon be contraction of programmes. Languages will weaken quickly and English will as usual bleed in support of them; Philosophy will be at further risk; but even larger units will come under scrutiny as universities seek to find funding for the kinds of para-academic jobs that are rapidly developing, so far more or less unnoticed, the departments of Research and Commercial Development, the Technology Transfer people, the PR units. If universities are to be run like businesses, remember that you get your materials cheap and invest in your distribution systems. How many editors are there at your publisher, compared to sales people? The numbers of juicy permanent jobs held in most sizeable humanities departments will be a ripe plum for VCs looking to improve their front-of-house and to hell with the people in the sweatshops.
Time might help. It may well be that when this government and its successor (right-wing right, Australia tells us) have poured trillions in the schools, the inadequacy of campus life, already evident today, but by then much worse, will become clear. Pampered brats from shiny direct grant comprehensives will be sweating in library queues at Birmchester U, and the treasury taps will be turned on again.
But to think of more than a one-election top-up would be unrealistic, utopian. However, to be practical, we do still, more or less, control our own curricula, delivery and assessment. True, bureaucrats, after the rout of the TQA (Teaching Quality Assessment), are still fiddling to find workable French-style control systems -- the more practical Australians don't bother, starvation does the job better. But, as Ken Ruthven suggests, we should look inside and think what is to be done there.
As well as the chance of developing new structures that are positive both intellectually and financially, as he recommends, we can do more to strengthen our defences, and not just by internally plugging the enrolment funding gaps -- which tends to hurt potential allies. A crucial defensive move in my view is to adapt systems of teaching to present and likely funding structures. Getting the delivery structures right -- teaching demands being manageable as well as operative, students provoked to learn and not swamped with group therapy tutorials, not many but well-informed and well-run staff meetings, a proper sense of consultation and joint ownership among staff: this is the humanities equivalent of getting the wagons in a circle -- which westward Americans apparently never actually did. We can start.
With its usually good student relations and producing passable research funding success by containing contact hours, a well-organised, determined humanities department is difficult to destroy. There can be annoyances, constant fights over library funding, threats to freeze posts, continuing holes in the bath. But the innate strength of the humanities will enable the managers of a well-defended department to keep some sort of inflow running. It may sound a modest ambition, well short of revolution or self-immolation. But it may also be the correct mode for life in the occupied university.
One encouraging thought is that no one involved I have spoken to has any doubt of the quality of the humanities subjects, not staff, not students of all kinds. Note the extraordinary success of the cheap reprints of English classics: when did you last travel in a crowded train carriage without at least one person avidly reading a Wordsworth volume or a Penguin classic? Jesse Jackson asserts often that the crucial thing is to keep hope alive, and that is a realistic and important element of defending the humanities today. There are many friends, and still few -- though at present very powerful -- enemies. Keeping your powder dry and never giving an inch is at least realistic, and sharing enemies can be a bond.
In the British situation the quality of students, the energy of ambient cultural life, especially if courses are linked up to the new discourses, the residual valuing of culture, for whatever sometimes dubious reasons, must make it harder to despair, unlike some of my Australian friends. But something like desperation can be induced by daily pressure, yearly reductions, exhaustion by memo, by a sense of being distantly directed by people who have no grasp of what education ever meant. The problems of funding are only the intimate infrastructure of a whole structure of aggressive attitudes to academic life, especially in the humanities.
The art of the Arts today is to accept the need for change, but make the changes manageable in terms of a reasonable professional workload, and make the changed structure embody the concepts of academic value that we intend to keep alive, such as intellectual integrity, independent thought and analytic quality. The students will be the last to complain.
We have to walk quietly and carry the big stick of inherent value, however innovatively and analytically we define it. And when the suits finally pay attention to what business is really doing, and turn back to small, flexible, client-sensitive, self-motivated, self-managing production groups as the moment's key to all the strategic mysteries, the well-defended networks of humanities departments will be waiting to resume openly their equally professional and intellectual business.
STEPHEN KNIGHT is Professor and Head of English Literature at Cardiff University; he was formerly Robert Wallace Professor and Head of Department at Melbourne University and spent twenty years at the University of Sydney. He has written widely on medieval and modern literature, concentrating recently on the Robin Hood tradition (another mode of funding entirely).…