This article was written by an established academic and senior lecturer in a personal capacity
I was one of the lucky ones. One of a golden generation, in fact: a working class student fortunate enough to hit my late teens no later than the early 1980s.
I can see now that those years were the very end of an era of immense educational quality but also, strangely enough, of a kind of ‘plenty’ – the latter guaranteed not by the greater selectivity of university entrance back then, but by the different values of those years, just before Thatcher’s cuts succeeded with their relentless attack on the post-second world war flowering of meritocracy and genuine social mobility in the UK.
I had benefited from attendance at a good, well-rounded comprehensive school, and then went on to take Arts and Humanities A levels at a well-funded, brilliantly staffed, brand new further education college on a council estate, practically next door to where I lived. The college offered huge amounts of support and encouragement to students, like me, whose families were far from accustomed to entry into higher education. College staff kept in touch with me even after I headed off to university to make sure I had all the help and advice I needed.
Thanks to them, I knew I could study Modern Languages and Literatures at one of the UK’s finest red-brick universities not just because I had the talent and industry to earn my place, but also because I was guaranteed to receive a full grant to meet almost all costs, for the first year at least – it diminished rapidly after that because of the cuts.
Nonetheless, the result was that I could study for my degree without too many money worries, and I succeeded in graduating with next to no debt. I didn’t even have to distract myself from my course by having to work during term-time to support myself.
Nor did I or my family really have to worry that my course wasn’t ‘vocational’ enough, that it might be ‘too Arts based’ for future careers. The solid public funding of my fees and maintenance expenses were the proof to all who cared to look that the Arts and Humanities were considered highly worthy of study in themselves by those from all social classes.
All of the above seems like some hopelessly utopian fantasy now. But several generations of British people through the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s benefited from these meritocratic values-led forms of social mobility and the belief that the Arts were central, and thus essential, to our identity and culture as a country.
In due course I became a university lecturer in the Arts and Humanities myself, determined to work in a system that reproduced those values. But that was where the utopian fantasy kicked in. Piece by piece, all of the above elements that went to ensure my university education in subjects I loved were dismantled by successive governments.
I’ve watched my classes grow, it’s true, as more students were admitted to university. But I’ve also watched the vast majority of those extra places be filled by students from an increasingly narrower range of backgrounds, despite much lip service paid by governments and universities to the principles of ‘widening participation’.
Like many of my colleagues, I haven’t stood idly by in the last thirty years as almost all of the values which supported my own education have been attacked by privatizing ideologies and underfunding, destroying the real possibilities of study for students from poorer backgrounds. Indeed, I have fought for those values at every turn.
But this latest, and possibly final step for my subjects — the complete removal of public funding from Arts and Humanities teaching subjects, and the passing on of the totality of their costs on to students — will inevitably impact most on people from poorer backgrounds who, without proper support and mentoring, may feel bound to opt for courses which seem to have more practical, short-term benefits.
For me, it is not enough just to campaign against these changes, as I have done most recently as a member of the academic DEFEND the ARTS and HUMANITIES group, attempting to prevent the inevitable closure of departments as universities opt to become even leaner and meaner to survive in the new market economy.
No, now it is an ARTS EMERGENCY! If we don’t actively help students from poorer backgrounds take the steps to study Arts and Humanities courses, then I for one will no longer be able to justify being a university lecturer in those subjects, even if my own department survives in the new era. The university sector will become, even more than it is now, a kind of higher, private school system, one not even supported by the limited philanthropic, alumni culture which underpins the privatised H.E. systems of some other countries.
It will thus be a system in which those who believe they can afford it will have complete freedom to study what they like, and those who can’t will most likely only get the vocational scraps. And it will be a system which, quite simply, those of us who have been supported and sustained in our own lives by the opposite educational and cultural values should not be able to live with.