Monday, October 18, 2010

Another thing that's beneficial to society despite being inherently unprofitable

I'm talking about education, innit?

Lest anyone get the wrong idea: we've been here before. The Browne Review recommends cutting public funding for university teaching by 80%. That sounds remarkably similar to the 1982 Serpell Report mentioned in my post of last year, which would have cut UK rail network mileage by 84%. Both reports were motivated by the same concern: the desire to make a publicly-funded entity economically self-sustaining.

Perhaps the similarity ends there. Sir David Serpell was a well-respected senior civil servant, tasked by his government to find a stupid answer to a stupid question. As a relative of his, Nick Serpell, pointed out on my blog, I shouldn't have given the impression in my last post that the report represented Serpell's own opinion. I'm sorry I did so.

Lest it be said that I shy away from ad hominem attacks, though, let's talk about Browne. A member of an institution well known for its transparency and accountability, the House of Lords, Browne is a distinctly oily figure - even putting aside the fact that he used to be Chief Executive of BP. This is a man who has admitted to lying in court. He's never had any serious involvement in academia himself - in fact, it's even been speculated that one of his motivations in proposing cuts may be to get back at the Cambridge establishment for being slighted by one of his professors during his own university days. He's also been accused of making fierce cuts during his time at the helm of BP - although that's in the Daily Mail, so should be taken with a pinch of salt. In any case, it's clear that this isn't the sort of man we'd expect to be appointed to chair an impartial review of spending on academia; unless, of course, the outcome was essentially predetermined, the game rigged.

Various people have pointed out, not particularly perspicuously, that the way UK universities currently fund themselves is not economically self-sustaining. As I've argued in my previous post, however, to argue that everything can, and should, be profitable reveals a serious misunderstanding of how human society works. The question that Browne (like Serpell) was tasked with answering isn't even one that it makes sense to ask. Education (like the rail network) isn't profitable, and shouldn't need to be. Funding it publicly shows that we're better than animals: we can actively choose to improve the way the world works, to make sacrifices for the greater good, rather than engage in a narrow-minded orgy of self-interest as the capitalism apparently espoused by the last two governments would have us do, blindly trusting/hoping that the invisible hand will level it all out. But that's enough naively idealistic vitriol.

Jessica pointed out in a comment on (the Facebook version of) my previous post the value of education. I didn't give it much thought at the time. Now, of course, I am doing, for the simple reason that it threatens something I hold very dear indeed: the availability of education, and the pursuit of broadening the sum of human knowledge. I should point out that I'm not personally threatened: I have funding for the rest of my PhD, and when that's over I should have the qualifications to do pretty much anything I want short of becoming an astronaut or brain surgeon. But future generations will have to bear the brunt of this - which is another reason I think the proposed cuts are abhorrent. Future generations suffer from the notable disadvantage of not being able to defend themselves: they can't vote, and they're mostly very small if alive at all. In fact, why doesn't Browne just cut out the middleman and set about punching babies of poor families in the face? It would have the same net effect. (Incidentally, the same argument applies to global warming deniers and other such head-in-sand-buriers; passing on a problem to the next generation while ignoring it and allowing it to grow in the meantime is Not Ka-Blamo!)

Nor does pointing to America provide a solution. American universities are largely able to stay afloat and provide scholarships, insofar as they can, because of a culture of philanthropy on the part of those who have struck it rich in the real world. Such an attitude is totally alien to the UK, and I find it hard to believe that the situation would change suddenly if fees were increased and public spending slashed. The American model isn't going to be transferred over here overnight. It would take time, and, as is well known, time is money. Money is something British universities will lack if Browne's proposals go through; by the time the "philanthropic mindset" sets in, if it does so at all, many smaller departments and institutions will have sunk without a trace.

Oh, and of course in the above I've taken it as given that broadening the sum of human knowledge is a good thing. Please don't disagree with me on that, as it would make me sad.

There's a demonstration on 10th November. If you agree with any part of the above*, I'd strongly encourage you to attend. It's hard to imagine an issue with more potential impact on the way our society currently works.

*Except the part about punching babies. Again, Not Ka-Blamo.