While in an unusually masochistic mood, I read all of Steven Pinker’s astonishingly wordy essay on science science science science did I tell you how much I love science? Just as there are few clearer signs that one cannot program a computer than to publicly call yourself a “hacktivist” and few clearer signs that you didn’t do statistics at university than to boast that you’re a “data geek”, Pinker, who made a perfectly decent academic career as a computational linguist, and then an absolutely stellar one by making up a load of rubbish about social sciences really sounds like he’s overcompensating for something. Everyone’s happy about the moon landings and curing smallpox and all that, but it really is a bit unseemly to imply that if you object to Pinker and his mates constantly gobbing off about things they don’t want to bother learning about, you’re in favour of unanaesthetised dentistry. The whole olive-branch-I’m-only-here-to-help thing is made particularly ridiculous of course, by the quite colossal strop that Pinker is still throwing even to this day about “postmodernism” and the way in which he reacts to the idea that scientists are human beings operating in a social context, and that therefore the things they do are a potential subject of sociological analysis.
Anyway, if you want to read a lot of very tendentious stuff about the role of science in literature and music, and if you want to be told that evolutionary psychology approaches and “the epidemiological dynamics by which one person affects others” (he means memes, but presumably has been told about the cat pictures thing) are much much more mainstream and universally accepted than they really are, then there it is. Because that isn’t really my subject here, more of an introductory toccata on the theme of run-on sentences.
I wanted to highlight this interview which Chris pointed out to me on Twitter, and which contains this quite startling passage, which was skipped over by the interviewer in such a manner as to suggest that it’s a mere commonplace of British university administration.
The imposition of £9,000 tuition fees did affect the number of applicants last year,” he says, “though that was in line with what we expected as many students who might have deferred their places during the previous year sensibly chose not to, UCAS applications have been back up again this year. Not to their peak, but to where they were in 2009. But we can’t ignore the fact that the demographics are changing – the potential student pool has fallen by 60,000 this year or that student expectations have risen.”[Emphasis added!]
The new fee structure may have put more cash directly into the coffers – universities are about £1,000-£1,500 better off on every arts and social studies student (though down a bit for those doing heavy science courses) – but the gain has come with its own price tag. “Students are now asking themselves if what they are being presented with is a value for money £9,000 offer,” says Smith. “And it’s one they are fully entitled to make.”
Apart from the other bits, which are interesting enough in themselves, that bit in bold is the real “hang on, rewind” moment. Under the current structure of UK education funding and relative to the status quo ante, the University of Exeter is making upwards of a grand a year off arts and social studies, but losing ” a bit” on science courses? Presuming that the university as a whole is roughly breaking even, that suggests to me that over the course of a three year degree, undergraduate arts students are subsidizing their science-studying mates to the tune of at least three thousand pounds a head. Per taxpayer, that is; the subsidy received per science student is presumably a multiple of that.
Is this not a bit of an odd state of affairs? I can see the rationale for a subsidy to STEM education – as it happens, I don’t agree with it any more than any other form of industrial policy – but if we’re going to have one, why would it make sense to fund it via an effective tax on humanities education (and, I would guess, on pure mathematics which also doesn’t have much in the way of expensive facilities)? Is the idea that humanities education is an active social bad, to be discouraged via a Pigouvian tax? If so, why would there be an implicit subsidy to drama, another notoriously loss-making course? (I have often wondered whether it is not the case that a lot of education policy commentary is motivated by the fear that someone, somewhere, might be doing media studies).
Quite apart from anything, if one handles the subsidy this way, there is considerable danger of creating perverse incentives. Any vice-chancellor who has seen Moneyball and can add must be aware that there is a pretty easy win in terms of research rankings from closing down an expensive science faculty and spending the money on poaching a top-class literature team. Steve Smith of Exeter, the guy interviewed, appears to have done exactly this with his chemistry department. It all seems a bit weird to me, that a reform of the education system which was meant to both introduce a bit of market discipline and promote science education, appears to be doing the opposite of both.