Public Letter by Humanities and Social Sciences Matter to David Willetts

In Tuesday’s Daily Telegraph, David Willetts responded to a letter published on Monday, in which leading academics criticised the speed with which the government was implementing proposals that would destabilise UK universities. Here, is a response written by Professor Nicola Miller, chair of the steering group of Humanities Matters.

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30 Nov 2010

David Willetts, the Universities and Science Minister, disagrees with some of the UK’s most eminent scientists, historians and literature specialists that the government is rushing to judgement in its implementation of the Browne Review. Yet what has been overlooked in the recent furore about high tuition fees is that the implementation of the Browne Report has been linked with the decision to cut all direct teaching grant for all arts, humanities and social science subjects (with reductions for other subjects). Together, these two moves result in a significant shift in the funding of universities. This shift towards a supply and demand model of funding will fundamentally change the nature of higher education in the UK. Yet none of its implications have been publicly aired or debated.

We argue that they should be aired and debated with great care because United Kingdom has a great deal to lose from any policy that undermines the excellence of its universities. Britain’s competitive international position in STEM subjects is well known. It is less well known that 3 of the top 10 global universities in the humanities are British and 4 of the top 15 global social science universities are British, according to the Times Higher Educational Supplement. This is despite, not because of funding levels to date, which — as the Browne Review acknowledged — left the universities in need of further investment. As a share of GDP the latest OECD figures show that UK public spending on higher education is 0.7%, lower than even the USA’s 1% and below the OECD average.

We are not calling for universities to be wholly subsidised by the taxpayer. We recognise the need for a mixed economy in university funding. But this sudden and ill-thought-out move to a supply and demand model threatens to introduce a level of instability into university funding that is likely to undermine the reputations for excellence in teaching and research upon which their international competitiveness is based.

The Minister for Higher Education is, rightly, on record arguing that “a dynamic and well-balanced economy needs to draw on the dynamism and research capacity of university departments in the arts and humanities as well as those in STEM subjects”. It gives me no pleasure to say that the government’s proposals to cut teaching grant and replace that income with high tuition fees put at grave risk the dynamism and research capacity of British universities, particularly in arts, humanities and social sciences, at a time when the economy could not be more in need of their productivity.

Yours sincerely,

Professor Nicola Miller
Convenor of the Campaign for Humanities and Social Sciences

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