Public Spending – and the NHS in Perspective.

I have a vague memory of John Lydon telling the crowd at the first Sex Pistols reunion gig in 1996 (Woo-hoo!  I was there!) that he’d had a message of support from the owner of Creation records.  “Don’t trust Alan McGee,” he snarled.  “He’s a very clever man.”

I’m beginning to think the same of Peter Mandelson, who is reported today to have announced plans to cut university funding by £533m – or almost 7%.  This is because it’s apparently enormously important that the government be seen to be doing something to suck up to the Daily Fail cut spending in the run-up to an election.  Naturally, there are all kinds of reasons why I think that a funding cut to higher education is bad, and my own job security isn’t actually first on the list.  Nor is the worry about how the hell we’re supposed to cram all that teaching and marking into two years (let alone doing any research, given all the extra teaching weeks), or even a slide in standards, my biggest worry.  No – my main objection is to the gradgrindianism of a worldview that thinks that education is less important than training, and to the failure to see the value and – dammit – joy in spontaneous scholarship.

But I thought it’d be interesting to compare university funding with NHS funding.  The comparison is a bit rough-and-ready, but enlightening and a bit annoying nonetheless.

The 2009-2010 settlement for the NHS gives it a total resource of £102,897m, based on a revenue of £98,499m.  Yep: that’s just shy of a hundred and three billion pounds.  For 2010-11, that’s set to rise to £109,806m, based on a revenue of £104,833m.  That’s quite a lot compared to the BBC’s quoted universities budget of less than £8 billion, which is set to fall to a little over £7 billion.  This means that the rise in NHS spending is not much short of the whole of HE spending.  Moreover, when we’re dealing with figures this large, it’s hard to see quite what difference is supposed to be made to the overall public spending figure by the proposed HE budget cut – though it’s all-too-easy to see what difference it’d make to the HE sector.  (Imagine telling the NHS that it was going to lose 7% of its real-terms income…)

So I’m already a touch worried about the justice question; granted that there’s a policy of reducing public spending, there’s grounds to worry that different areas of the public sector will get hit in inverse proportion to their electoral popularity.  That’s bad news for universities (especially in the non-vocational disciplines), bad news for the arts, bad news for museums and so on.  And it does seem to be unfair; if there’s a need or policy to reduce spending, then so be it.  But it’s hard to square cuts in some sectors with planned spending rises in the NHS – or at least protection from inflation (see p 103) –  except that the NHS is politically VERY sensitive in a way that departments of Classics aren’t.

But I suppose that the response to this would be that it’s important that cash continues to be channelled to the NHS.  And, of course, it is.  But the question that this prompts is one of whether, if we just transplanted half a billion from HE into the NHS, it’d make any real difference.  And it wouldn’t.  It’s just not enough.

What about the idea that the NHS is crucial to the economy?  Again, of course it is.  But the same seems to be true of the university sector.  Sally Hunt of the UCU claimed on Today that the university sector generates £60 billion a year; that’s a pretty good return, and represents a lot of economic activity.  So the idea that, in straighted times, we can do without luxuries such as high HE spending looks to be a crock – the HE sector makes us wealthier.

But let’s pretend that it doesn’t; and this is where the comparison with the NHS comes into its own.  Pretend that all the universities produce is idle scholarship, and all the NHS produces is healthy people.  We could still ask this question: what would be the point of either output?  What, that is, is the point of health, and the point of education?  And it seems to me that both are vindicated as ingredients of some kind of eudaimonia.  We could build a plausible political theory on the premise that the point of a government is to guarantee flourishing.  Welfare, in the sense of somatic health, might be a part of this; but the same could be said, I suspect, for what used to be called the “life of the mind”.  That is, both health and education would count as components of the good life.  Of course, different people might value either component differently; and it’s possible that health is more tangible as a component of the good life.  But, all the same, education would be there.  And it’s possible – probable, perhaps – that there are aspects of even non-vocational education that contribute more to aggregate flourishing than some aspects of health spending.  I certainly see no a priori reason to deny this.

Now, if we can get that kind of argument firmed up, it’d be interesting to throw it at government spending decisions.  We’re used to thinking that health spending is not only near-sacred – even right-leaning organisations are reluctant to announce restrictions on it – but uniquely so.  But it’s not clear why this should be.  If the point of public spending is in the service of some kind of standard of flourishing, then other dimensions of the budget presumably have a correspondingly elevated status.  And that means that a policy of cutting spending on some aspects of spending while making a point of not cutting it for others seems, at first glance, to be inconsistent.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m all for high spending on the health service.  But I’m also for high spending on other things such as the arts, science, transport and education.  If that means a little more tax, then so be it – Sweden isn’t exactly a hell-hole.  On the other hand, if you want less public spending, then while I disagree, I can see where you’re coming from.  What worries me about this announcement, though, is that it’s ill-thought-through, potentially unjust, and painfully transparent politicking.

Don’t trust Peter Mandelson.  He’s a very clever man.

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