Gradgrind economics and the public university

By Jill Segger
December 11, 2010

Since the 1970s, successive governments have reinforced a social tendency to know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Education has not escaped this destructive culture and John Heathershaw has given a chilling warning of the death of the public university.

There are many facets to the contribution made by universities in the development of individuals and of society. They teach the specific skills of medicine, law and engineering; they enable and nourish research into the technologies which advance our material comfort, health and standard of living. These are essential functions and most of us have reason to be grateful for them.

But if these easily identifiable and utilitarian goods are presented as the whole meaning and purpose of the university sector and if that concept goes unchallenged, we will profoundly impoverish ourselves, both individually and collectively.

Reading degrees in music did not enable me to contribute significantly to GNP. I acquired high levels of practical and theoretical skills which enabled me to make a (very) modest living for two decades. Those skills, particularly the compositional disciplines of structure, development and euphony, probably facilitated the later development of my career as a writer.

But the real and lasting value of my undergraduate and postgraduate study was contact with fine minds and the dialogue, discourse and mode of interrogating ideas and concepts which was not limited to the field of my chosen discipline.

It is this area of intellectual and aesthetic development which helps us to move towards grace and wholeness. It does not show up on a balance sheet and has little to do with the market-facing direction of the university-as-training-for-a-job model.

The character of the public university and its role in engaging the faculties of reason and creativity is illustrated by the debates undertaken by the students at Exeter (and in many other universities) which Heathershaw describes.

Their critical engagement with the rise in tuition fees and their consequent proposal of alternative policies is central to understanding the role of the free and diverse exchange of ideas in a democratic society. Open discussion and development of innovative ideas cannot not be limited to nano-technology or computer science. They have an essential part to play in questioning power and complacency and generating the changes in thinking and perception which are essential for social evolution.

The removal of public funding for universities is the cause of the increase in tuition fees. The government has cut 100 per cent of the funding for arts, humanities and social science degrees. It is inevitable that research, and quality of teaching will suffer. Fewer young people will be attracted to disciplines in decline and student indebtedness means subjects more likely to deliver a high salary will attract a greater number of applicants. The spiral of market-driven learning will grow ever steeper and tighter.

We cannot afford to be passive in the face of this threat. As reliance on ever increasing fees puts disciplines in jeopardy, it is essential to raise awareness and stimulate debate about the kind of future this will deliver.

Can we afford to let whole areas of human learning and accumulated wisdom wither away, their enlarging and civilising influence passing out of our knowledge? Do we we want to live in a society without poets, musicians and philosophers?

If David Cameron's “well-being index” is to have any meaning beyond that of the sound-bite, his government must enlarge its vision of higher education beyond Gradgrind economics. The public university, enlarging perception, enabling vision and bringing together diverse thinking is a public good. We must defend its value, whatever the cost.

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