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English degrees for £27k - who’s buying ? - tribune de John Sutherland, The Guardian, 30 novembre 2010

mardi 30 novembre 2010, par Wilde, Oscar

As protests continue over tuition fees, John Sutherland wonders what’s to become of arts courses. Will they be seen as worth the money ?

Pour lire cette tribune sur le site du Guardian

"Worth" is what it all boils down to. Whether it’s worthwhile for the state, in its own interest, to offer higher education free. Or whether it’s worthwhile for the student to pay up to the hilt to get their higher education. A simple either/or.

On the face of it, the government’s argument would seem to make sense. A school-leaver is given training at the most advanced level by instructors who are the envy of the world. Once trained, that school-leaver will start working life at a comfortable salary level with the prospect of lifetime earnings hundreds of thousands of pounds more than fellow school-leavers (poor schmucks) who went straight into the labour market. Why should that young man or woman not pay for the skills they have been expensively taught ? Why should those (poor schmucks) who have not benefited be mulcted through their taxes to pay for them ?

But what higher education are we talking about here ? There are three world-class universities in this country that will never charge their undergraduates : Sandhurst, Cranwell, and Dartmouth (you can perhaps add Hendon Police College). Not mortar-boards but mortars. Go to the Sandhurst training site and you’ll see that what those institutions are offering is better than free – they’ll actually pay you to be trained by them.

The government abolished the sale of commissions in 1872. But why shouldn’t cadets at Sandhurst Military Academy pay £9,000 a year for their tuition, as will undergraduates at the nearby University of Surrey ? Officer training is as much a long-term career booster as George Osborne’s PPE degree or my PhD.

Why does the government offer military higher education for free ? Because it can see a direct payback for the investment. We want to kick ass round the world, punch above our weight. It’s high priority. By the same calculus the government has earmarked a few high-priority subjects in universities (medicine, hard science) and pulled the plug on all the others (arts, humanities, social sciences).

It’s wrong headed, as one hopes Simon Schama (their new recruit), will advise them. There are vital, but indirect, paybacks from these supposed no-priority subjects. Those benefits, however, are diffuse and, quite likely, three or more electoral terms in the future. This pathologically myopic government of millionaires doesn’t care to look that far ahead.

One topical example will make the point. A young man and woman will one day come into the possession of the finest private art collection in the world – worth billions. What would be the best higher education for this couple ? A degree in art history at a venerable university ? Or training as helicopter pilots ?

The couple is William and Catherine. Both studied history of art at St Andrews (where no fees are charged). When the Windsor family is asked by what right they own their incomparable art treasures their spokesperson’s invariable reply is that they "hold them in trust for the nation".

So what is the nation’s greater return on investment ? The helicopters the heir apparent is being trained to pilot will be obsolete by the time he’s 40. So will HRH Pilot. But he and his wife will be knowledgeable about art for life. William V will be the first monarch since George IV to be expert enough to look after the royal collection. Our collection. Unfortunately, he may have to wait as long as our fat friend to come into his Rembrandts. But that’s the nature of long-term investments. You have to wait.

The notion that tripling the cost of higher education will not deter those applicants who are not, as David Cameron described himself, "relatively well off" (ie net worth an estimated £19m) would strain the satirical powers of Jonathan Swift. Nor will they stay merely tripled. The American example predicts that tuition fees go up faster than inflation – to whatever the market will currently bear. And, of course, this country’s universities have neither Ivy League billion-dollar endowments for bursaries, nor the in-state reduction that universities like Berkeley offer to residents.

Student leaflets flying angrily round campuses in the lead-up to the day of action, last week, protested that "despite being the fifth largest economy, we will be left with the world’s most expensive education". It’s true. The government’s justifications for the fee hike have been, at best, disingenuous. Don’t call him "two-brains", call him "forked-tongue" Willetts.

The deterrent effect on applicants in the coming years will be bad. Worse still will be the corrosive effects on universities, despite the immediate injection of cash from hiked fee revenue. Educationally, it’s a poisoned chalice.

One of the least plausible justifications put forward by the government is that raising tuition fees threefold will mean students will demand a higher quality of tuition. It doesn’t work that way. If you pay up to £50k for an undergraduate course, you don’t want a good education, you want a good degree. The two are not identical. A word that is much out of fashion nowadays in academic circles is "discipline", as in "the discipline of history", or even "fine art". The flabby term "subject area" is preferred. But if it’s to be successful, university teaching has to be strenuously disciplinary.

Discipline means low to middling grades (for the many) and downright failure (for quite a few). Already the letter F is rusting from disuse. It will get worse. Once you charge the going rate, "selling" lectures, for example, rather than "giving" them, you change the nature of staff-student relationships. The student has become a customer – and, as they say, the customer is always right.

Having paid all that money, are students in future going to happily accept a B-, or – heaven forbid – a 2.2 ? Knowing human nature, what would you expect : that having been downgraded, they’ll kiss the rod and work harder, or that they’ll apply muscle to get upgraded ? Grade inflation ? Think Weimar. And think lawsuits – particularly in subjects (eg history of art) where marking is impressionistic, dependent on the subjective judgment of the marker.

The danger is not that English, or all those other squishy, low-priority subjects, will be depopulated. There will always be young idealistic kids prepared to go into hock. The danger is that those subjects will become undisciplined, an intellectual rabble. Good degrees are only good degrees by there being many more less-than-good degrees. The cash nexus will, over time, rot the system – the delicate balance of authority and intellectual submission that makes education, at any level, work.

So, to return to "worth". Is a degree in a low-priority arts or social science subject a good investment for the prospective student after 2012 ? For a few years it will be. There is enough inertia in the system to keep things recognisably as they are for a while. But in the long term, two very bad things will have happened. One is that assessment of ability, and quite likely entrance procedures, will be hopelessly skewed by money considerations. The second is that teaching will have become divorced from research, as academics who are able (by seniority or "stellar" publication achievement) put as much distance between themselves and the classroom as they can. The early symptoms of this decay are already visible.

When King William and Queen Catherine come to the throne – in around 2030 by latest estimate – they will reign over the ruins of a university system that served them well, but that made the fatal mistake of trusting politicians to look after its interests.

John Sutherland is Lord Northcliffe professor emeritus of Modern English Literature at University College London