On Universities (and art finding you)

Of all this coalition's society=what you pay for 'innovations', the one that's angered and depressed me the most has not been their attitude to arts funding. It's been their attitude to further and higher education. As someone in HE said to me last week, we are about to see the end of the public university. As the first person in my family to go to university, back in the Thatcher years which with hindsight look like a golden age for working class students, this would sadden and anger me, even if I wasn't now the parent of one university student, and one applying for next year. I should also say I don't just blame this government for the privatisation of higher education - it intensified under the last government.

This morning I saw a list of institutions that will lose ALL their funding for teaching - which has a preponderance of arts institutions, including the one my son has just started at. (There is some debate about the accuracy of the list, it should be said.) Then this evening I had my latest example of art-with-timing-humans-lack, when I read this passage from J.M Coetzee's (rather odd) novel Diary of a Bad Year:

It was always a bit of a lie that universities were self-governing institutions. Nevertheless, what universities suffered during the 1980s and 1990s was pretty shameful, as under threat of having their funding cut they allowed themselves to be turned into business enterprises, in which professors who had previously carried on their enquiries in soveriegn freedom were transformed into harried employees required to fulfil quotas under the scrutiny of professional managers.

In the days when Poland was under Communist rule, there were dissidents who conducted night classes in their homes, running seminars on writers and philosophers excluded from the official canon (for example, Plato). No money changed hands, though there may have been other forms of payments. If the spirit of the university is to survive, something along those lines may have to come into being in countries where tertiary education has been wholly subordinated to business principles. In other words, the real university may have to move into people's homes and grant degrees for which the sole backing will be the names of the scholars who sign the certificates.

Then, I came across this:
The Free University of Liverpool, which is doing exactly that, as a protest, and maybe even also as art. It does make me have an optimistic thought though. Might the move to a consumer-market for higher education (just like some people have for education up to 18 - that's why they think it's natural and probably 'fair' we should all pay for everything or do without) might have some silver lining opportunities for the arts. Maybe practitioners could set themselves free of some of the downsides of the academy by taking back control of training? Maybe we could get away from feeling people need a degree to be a productive and creative human beings?

That sounds helplessly glass-half-full, though, I know, even to me. I don't know, maybe I'm just tired of negativity. If we can't change them, let's go around them.


  1. I'm sorry Mark. This is fantastically disingenuous.

    Deal with spurious Professors like Lewis Biggs and Mike Stubbs and we might be able to talk about higher education.


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