Last week University College London announced to English students, of which I am one, that their one-on-one tutorials are to be cut. Undergraduate students currently have four hour-long sessions with an academic each term. These are to be replaced with half-hour sessions focused solely on submitted work. The cuts were explained as being unrelated to the Browne review and the resulting reduction in teaching grants and raising of fees. To some extent this is true. Pressures on departments to extend more lucrative MA and PhD courses at the expense of undergraduate teaching are not new, though cuts to teaching grants inevitably accelerate them. They are part of the ongoing process to turn higher education into a business, introducing a market not just between universities but between departments within them.
UCL English students were told other subjects have to "cross-subsidise" our teaching, as if our department exists as an independent business within the university, competing for resources and having to balance our books in isolation. This is true not just of UCL, but increasingly of all higher education institutions. English departments have little to offer the world of business: we're not going to attract subsidies from investment banks to teach 14th-century literature, and arms companies won't buy the products of our research. We cannot compete with science and technology subjects when it comes to balance sheets and profitability. When market ideology is implemented and state funding withdrawn it is the arts and humanities that lose the most. It's possible to read cuts to tutorials as an insignificant development – after all, UCL is the only university outside of Oxford and Cambridge to offer one-on-one teaching to English undergraduates. Our relatively privileged position is being slightly reduced in a time of cuts to teaching and student services across the higher education sector. It's a personal, even a consumer, issue for those who chose UCL because of the tutorial system and nothing more. Such a view would be naive. UCL was the first university to offer a degree in English. It trumpets its teaching excellence and enjoys second place in this newspaper's rankings for the subject. It turns away hundreds, if not thousands, of highly qualified applicants to the English BA course each year. If this institution is cutting teaching, reducing the quality of a course and playing by business rules, what hope is there for English, or the arts and humanities in general, elsewhere? That's the real story here. This government's view of higher education, a free market where students follow teaching quality and money follows them, is a sham. Lord Browne promised us we would "pay more" in order to "get more", that competition would improve teaching. With one elite university, almost certain to charge the full £9,000 fees, already cutting provision, it seems highly unlikely he was right. Of course, some will argue that no true market is possible when UK and EU undergraduates pay less in fees than the cost of their teaching, even at £9,000 a year. Yet even the current level of fees risks turning courses like English into bastions of the rich and privileged. Who would gamble £27,000 or more for a degree in a subject that's being systematically devalued? Universities will, of course, reject that teaching quality is being reduced. UCL justifies cuts by redefining tutorials as time set aside for creating better writers, with the half-hour sessions set to be dedicated to criticism of our written work rather than the tailored teaching they currently allow. This might sound good to some: another quantifiable skill to put on your CV and another measurable objective for university management.
This view leaves out the rich seam of critical thought that runs through English literature, that hard-to-measure ability to read well and think deeply. Arts and humanities are moving further towards a transactional model of learning – we pay them £9,000 a year and they'll provide us with a hard skill – and away from an engaged, two-way pedagogy producing graduates who can reflect as well as write. It is not undergraduate hubris to suggest lecturers as well as students benefit from time set aside for critical discussion, but the transactional model denies this, reinforcing the student's relationship to her department as one of passive consumer to business-like provider. University bosses have been complicit in this marketisation of education since well before the Browne review and failed to use their considerable power to fight the teaching grant cut. Our experience at UCL might prove the cuts are coming but it's not too late for students and lecturers to work together to defend our teaching and our departments. We must continue to argue for fully state-funded universities: the very survival of our subject depends on it.