Departmental cuts a symptom of devaluation in education

As York’s academic departments are called upon to collectively make £1.2 million in savings, there is the considerable temptation to suggest that these budget cuts should indeed be made on an uneven and disproportionate basis. The thought occurred to me this week, when I was slaving away translating Sartre’s Roads to Freedom – a wartime trilogy which mercilessly deteriorates in quality as it goes along – that funding should be cut entirely from a select few departments. My housemate, in the cuddly and vacuous embrace of third-year Management Studies, is currently possessed of a rather different task. Each time he goes into the library, he must note down the emotions he feels. I had expected his tally chart to contain the categories ‘tedium’ or ‘fatigue’, even ‘despair’ – essentially, the normative emotional scope of a visit to the JB Morrell. Instead, anticipated to arise in the depths of his heart are ‘disgust’, ‘contempt’, ‘shame’, ‘surprise’ and god forbid, ‘interest’.

Of course, in the spirit of equality, all departments would share the burden to the same degree – but that’s never going to be the case. Some departments need more immediate funding than others and thus their contribution to the savings will be necessarily lessened. Given that £0.5 million is being given back to departments this academic year, the two-year deficit is £0.7 million, which is far less heavy on the imagination.

The savings form part of an operating surplus, which in itself is hard to argue against, and combined with the fact that only 22% of the University of York’s income comes from the HEFCE (the body whose funds the government is set to cut by £900 million), York should fare better than most. Nevertheless, cuts to the academic core of our university coincide with an increase in student numbers, meaning that the quality of our teaching becomes further diluted.

Charlie Leyland has planned measures to offset the feeling that in terms of tuition we’re a bit short-changed. Developing the course rep role is good practice, but there are deeper problems which only the University itself can deal with. Arts and humanities students continue to suffer from a lack of contact hours, and there is a strong feeling that the contact hours we do have are spent in remedial debate between the students themselves, students who are broadly unaware of what they are talking about due to little teaching taking place in small classes and a removal of lectures. The LFA programme, at a time when fierce competition for graduate jobs can be, to an extent, alleviated for students with good language skills, remains prohibitively expensive and worse, inaccessible, for students living on the breadline.

The real villain, however, is our government, whose actions have sought to devalue higher education and whose near £billion cut has created this hysteria in the first place. Seeking to shove 50% of young people each year into higher education, whilst simultaneously stripping educational institutions of the funds required to teach them properly is absolute nonsense. In all likelihood, the picture wouldn’t change for the better were the Tories to win the next general election. You’d suspect that lifting the tuition fee cap would be even less of a burden on their minds than for their counterparts in the Centre.

France and Germany announced recently that they’re ploughing money into higher education, yet we’re facing cuts because it has been decided that we’re not a key election issue. Gradually, a University education has become a simple extension of the secondary school experience that so many students despised. Bad employment prospects and a gross empahasis on the practical utility of one’s education mean that for the even the best students, the attitude has become “enter university, get a first, leave”, in the same way we sought to dawdle to our required A level grades with little affection for actually learning anything outside of a meagre and frail syllabus. My supervisor remarked, after I produced a swift calculation of my marks and a series of predicted outcomes for my module grades, that she had never seen a set of students so obsessed with the eventual class of their degree, and so averse to taking risks that could jeopardise it. Yet increasingly this is how we need to approach our ‘learning’, and that is a great sadness.

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