Britain’s Tory Government Wants the Humanities to Be a Luxury for the Rich

British prime minister Rishi Sunak has launched a crackdown on what he calls “rip-off university degrees.” It’s really a push to discourage working-class students from choosing subjects that will help develop their critical understanding of the world.

A view of the Radcliffe Camera at the University of Oxford in the UK. (Julian Herzog / Wikimedia Commons)

Socrates is famously reported by Plato to have said that the unexamined life was not worth living. Such a life was not simply inferior to that pursued under the shadow of reflective self-criticism, he thought, but intolerable.

For the Athenian philosopher, the moral duty of every citizen in his fifth-century BCE Athens was to “know thyself” — to come to a sense of oneself, both as a personal entity and as one individual component of a broader political community, by way of private rumination and public deliberation with one’s fellow citizens (a category that excluded women or the enslaved, of course).

The individual who failed to do so could not be regarded as living. The struggle toward self-understanding was the core struggle of Greek ethical life, and one that Socrates extended far into the political sphere. He would not stop asking questions: What is justice? What is the good life? What is knowledge?

And with each question, by disabusing his interlocutors of the apparent certainties on which their convictions rested, Socrates chipped further away at the ideological substructure supporting the Athenian city-state. Rather than brace itself against this critical enterprise and the degradation of public morality that Socrates augured, the Athenian ruling elites thought it expedient to silence him via a prescription of hemlock.

In light of recent announcements, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Britain’s Conservative government is pursuing a plan of action that echoes that pursued by the Athenian elite. It is seeking to mollify a primary source of critical opposition and inconvenient disruption, if not via hemlock, then via prime-ministerial decree.

Cracking Down

On July 17, Tory prime minister Rishi Sunak announced a new campaign to “crack down on rip-off university degrees.” According to the government’s accompanying press release: “The UK has some of the world’s leading universities, but a minority of the courses on offer leave students saddled with debt, low earnings and faced with poor job prospects.”

Too adept in the arts of strategic ambiguity to specify the courses or subjects deemed responsible for the general malaise, the government focused on a stated commitment to make the system fairer not only for students, “but also for taxpayers — who make a huge investment in higher education and are liable for billions of pounds in unrecovered tuition fees if graduate earnings are low.”

The Conservative administration backs up its plan with questionable statistics that suggest that “nearly three in ten graduates do not progress into highly skilled jobs or further study 15 months after graduating,” or that “one in five graduates would be better off financially if they hadn’t gone to university.” It has set itself the agenda of bringing the university sector ever-closer into line with the imperatives of a free-market economy focused on maximizing economic growth, whatever the cost.

“Students and taxpayers rightly expect value for money and a good return on the significant financial investment they make in higher education,” the press release continues. The new measures will include giving the Office of Students the task of limiting how many people universities can recruit “onto courses that are failing to deliver good outcomes for students.” This, we are told, will “crack down on higher education providers that continue to offer poor quality courses and send a clear signal that we will not allow students to be sold a false promise.”

This implies that if university departments cannot keep pace with market preference by, among other things, innovating to compete with their many rivals for foreign and domestic students, they should fall as the necessary casualties of economic growth. It just so happens that a disproportionate number of these departments are within the arts and humanities. A majority of those departments that have been closed or that face precarious short-term futures are affiliated with regional universities that cater primarily to underprivileged and first-generation university students.

In Britain’s right-wing press, commentators revel in the thought that degrees in the humanities may be declining in popularity. Writing in the Times, Emma Duncan was positively gleeful:

As somebody whose taste for nineteenth-century novels borders on the obsessive, I sympathise with the belief that we should encourage the study of our great books. But the decline of English as a subject for study at university seems to me a healthy development. Literature is lovely stuff but it’s not a way to earn your bread.

Duncan had previously railed against the universities of Oxford and Cambridge for supposedly penalizing students from private schools, who are still vastly overrepresented at Oxbridge: “Discriminating against parents who save or borrow to pay for education in favour of those who send their children to state schools and spend their money on luxuries is not a good signal.” It may not come as a huge shock to learn that Duncan, with her “obsessive” taste for nineteenth-century fiction, went to an expensive private school and studied at Oxbridge.

Matching People to Jobs

The press release goes on to boast about other steps being taken in this field:

[T]he government is going further still to support people and employers to take advantage of the wide range of free training options available to them, helping to fill skills gaps, get people into work and support the Prime Minister’s priority of growing the economy.

This is a euphemistic way of saying that aspirants to university who come from disadvantaged family or community backgrounds should spare themselves the spurious dream of social advancement. Instead of applying to study humanities subjects in stagnating departments housed at uncompetitive regional universities, they should opt for an apprenticeship linked to a local firm or a further education course.

The overriding goal of the government’s campaign is to “match people to the great jobs and training available in local business communities throughout the country.” In other words, to entrench their social positions and disabuse them of any hope of transcending their inauspicious circumstances by means of a humanities degree — let alone of redirecting the critical perspectives gained by such an education onto their material living conditions.

Those who advocate this utilitarian view of education as a means toward some end frequently depict it as the most efficient way of training working-class students for the job market. What it actually amounts to is telling such students that they ought to study what best suits their station in life: their focus ought to lie with social care, engineering, and a spectrum of pliable trades.

As a consequence, essential subjects that should be open to everyone — philosophy, literature, history — become the preserve of privileged individuals with much less incentive to critically examine their material conditions and the power structures that govern the society in which they are so favorably positioned.

Another prominent voice encouraging would-be students to follow a vocational path instead of choosing a humanities degree is Tony Blair’s son Euan. Blair now has an estimated fortune well in excess of his father’s already considerable wealth and received an MBE in the Queen’s 2022 honors list. Tatler magazine described the trajectory of his education start-up Multiverse, which has yet to turn a profit:

Multiverse seeks to provide young people with an alternative to university by matching them with apprenticeships at leading employers. Last year, it became the first apprenticeship provider granted a licence to award degrees on the job. Euan owns at least 25 per cent of the company, according to filings made with Companies House in 2022 — which means he is worth around £425 million (and very likely significantly wealthier than his father who is believed to be worth approximately £50 million). The company secured hundreds of millions in an investment round led by Lightspeed Venture Partners and General Catalyst, an American venture capital firm that has previously backed Airbnb and Deliveroo.

Multiverse has also received financial backing from the Walton dynasty, the owners of Walmart and the richest family in the United States. Blair himself graduated with a degree in ancient history from the University of Bristol. Whether this proved to be of greater value to him than his family connections in his business ventures is a matter for speculation.

The Neoliberal Academy

This recent turn by the Tory government has its basis in three trends: the introduction of the market into higher education; a view of students as consumers; and an instrumental attitude to knowledge. These trends are hardly new, and the latest Tory rhetoric marks a sequential development in the party’s approach to education rather than something that comes out of the blue. What may seem like a new departure is really the culmination of a long-term reorientation of the university sector since the 2008 crash of which the Conservatives are the architects, building off the foundations laid by New Labour.

In 1963, the Robbins report into British higher education argued for the expansion of the university sector on the basis that learning was a good in itself. Britain would stand to benefit more from an arrangement in which the entire population could avail of the fruits of education on an egalitarian basis rather than one stratified in line with lingering class divisions, regional inequalities, and accorded expectations.

This vision stands in stark contrast with the 2010 Browne Review, the work of former BP chairman John Browne, who received a peerage from Tony Blair’s government. Preceding the revolutionary changes to higher education introduced by the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010–12, Browne’s report in many respects provided their ideological justification.

It construed the value of universities in primarily economic terms. Higher education mattered, according to Browne, not as a good in itself that everyone should enjoy equal access to, but because it allowed fee-paying students to find employment with “higher wages and better job satisfaction” — two vital incentives that would help “produce economic growth” when “fairly” distributed.

The 1963 report was the product of a political consensus in Britain for which national development was the leading priority. This was partly in response to Britain’s faltering global standing, with the dissolution of empire and its inability to compete effectively with the United States or European states like West Germany and France.

The consensus of the time regarded education as a common good — one that everyone should be able to exploit as far as their preferences or talents could take them. This was a cause in which universities played an especially vital role as centers of research and scholarship in service to society as a whole.

Margaret Thatcher and her political heirs repudiated what remained of this nexus via a process of intensive marketization. The idea that the function of the research university was to return specified “outcomes” to “investors” would have been deemed repugnant in the 1960s.

The New Labour government decided to introduce university fees — initially at £1,000 per annum, raised to £3,000 in 2006 — on the grounds that university graduates earned more than nongraduates, and were thus in a position to contribute back to the system from which they had benefitted. Students now had to pay their way up the social ladder, through a system that presented itself as neutral and the final corrective to class disparity.

State and Market

The reforms to higher education in 2010–12 dispelled any lingering illusions in the nature of this arrangement. David Cameron’s government raised the annual tuition fee for students to £9,000 and effectively reconstructed the university sector in line with free-market principles.

With the university still outwardly presented as the primary route to social advancement, offering young people the opportunity to “maximize their potential” against a dire economic backdrop, the idea of the neoliberal university came into conflict with the reality of class as the final arbiter of social mobility in Britain.

In this framework, those in a position to pay the exorbitant fees were “entitled” to their due returns, to the detriment of those who could not. The latter had failed at the game of meritocracy and would be poorly compensated for their losses, alienating them from the rising class of technocrats. It is an attempt to mollify that tension — to forcibly rectify an aberrant market through direct intervention by the neoliberal state — that we see playing out before us today.

The strange thing is that this tension between social aspiration and economic reality has been revealed as irreconcilable under the prevailing Tory dispensation. What greater evidence could one seek of the failure of marketization than the spectacle of a government aiming to “crack down” on certain university courses in a desperate last effort to realign that market? Only as a campaign in market discipline does this new Tory agenda make sense.

But as William Davies has recently pointed out, the key point is how this new course “aligns neoliberal economics with the cultural agenda of the rightwing media.” What better way for the Tory government to refine a volatile market than by introducing punitive measures designed to weed out “rip-off” courses?

After all, those courses don’t just leave students in debt and divert them from the “practical” courses they should be pursuing in line with their social standings and expectations. They also produce graduates who are more likely to be critical of the government and hold the socially progressive views derided as “woke” by right-wing pundits.

A Democratic Necessity

It is not difficult to vindicate the humanities. A conservative thinker like Edmund Burke would readily vouch for their necessity in providing an indispensable “moral imagination,” allowing us to see from where we have come and where we might be headed as individual members of inclusive communities.

The humanities will always be practiced; the problem lies, rather, with the prospect of an elite coming to dominate their practice in Britain. This would bear a certain resemblance to the social arrangements in fifth-century BCE Athens, with a cultured elite permitted to regress into complacency and indifference to the concerns of the broader population.

A humanistic education should be available to everyone in a society. Individuals should not be excluded from participating in a given community’s cultural heritage — and, most importantly, each citizen should be able to participate on an equal basis in the political process.

Only the humanities can provide that essential basis: allowing students the time and resources for discovering themselves as private individuals and as potential political actors alongside their fellow citizens amid overlapping nexuses of historical power. The humanities provide us with an orientation in the social world that is an essential prerequisite for effective political action. We neglect the humanities at our peril.