Higher Education in Crisis?

Many of this blog’s readers will have heard about the Browne Report recently released in the UK. The report by Lord Browne reviews Britain’s higher education system and proposes sweeping changes in the ways that students’ educations are financed.

If adopted–and there is wide agreement that it will be–the Browne Report will make higher education much more expensive, and will put considerable pressure on various disciplines, including humanities disciplines, to justify themselves in terms of market values and profitability. In both respects, the report will have chilling effects.

James Vernon, a historian at Berkeley who was educated in England, has recently been circulating an essay in response to the Browne Report. Vernon’s essay includes a passionate defense of the humanities, arguing that students value the critical thinking and language skills imparted by humanities disciplines, and offering an impassioned case for study that “speak[s] to different systems of value.” “Economic utility,” he concludes, “is not the measure of who we are or who we want to become.”

This is an argument that the humanities themselves have been making for a long time, and in different ways (see Matthew Arnold), but the Browne Report, and indeed increasing pressures on the humanities in US institutions, have renewed these debates.

Back in the 1990s, I sometimes taught a course in Cultural Studies, which spent a good deal of time looking at how the humanities had been constituted in US and UK higher education. In 1990, Stuart Hall, for example, published “Cultural Studies and the Crisis in the Humanities.” Maybe it is time to revisit some of these issues and debates?

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