Filling an Emptying Bath, or Understanding Humanities Funding

By Knight, Stephen | Education, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Filling an Emptying Bath, or Understanding Humanities Funding


Knight, Stephen, Education


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. …

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