One of the biggest stories for historians over here in the UK this week is the government’s recent announcement of major budget cuts as the central feature of their austerity plan. We’ve certainly faced our share of budget cuts over the past several years, but nothing like the 40% cut handed down to British universities this week.
And the news is worse for historians. In their announcement of the cut, spokesmen for the coalition government explained that the STEM disciplines were too essential to Britain’s future to have to take such extensive cuts, so the brunt of the cuts will be borne by the humanities and social sciences disciplines. In a worst case scenario, they are looking at being completely de-funded. Many of my UK colleagues were filled with gallows humor this week in Liverpool and most wondered if they would even have a job in the fall.
The government’s austerity program, as it applies to higher education, reminds me very much of the shock therapy solutions worked out for the economies of Eastern Europe in 1990-1991, especially Poland and Czechoslovakia. What the British government proposes to do is lift the cap on tuition and fees charged by UK universities and then have those universities fund their programs through the revenue generated in this way. In short, the government plans to take UK universities out of the state subsidized sector and throw them all at once into the capitalist pond.
If the universities were able to collect the money from their tuition and fee hikes starting in the fall, this might actually work. It would be painful to many, but it might work. The problem is that in the system that exists those tuition and fee revenues can’t be spent right away. Only after students have been enrolled for two years do the funds become available. That means that for two years any benefit of a tuition hike will be postponed.
As one of my colleagues here explained it, what this means for historians is that those at the larger, more prestigious universities will be okay (although they will have their share of austerity). But the historians at the smaller, underfunded or under-regarded universities are in serious trouble. It is quite possible that many history departments will simply be closed. This is, of course, a worst case projection, but it seems to me within the realm of the possible, given what we’ve learned from the impact of shock therapy solutions on economies over the past two decades.