This article was published in on April 23, 2010. The views expressed here are those of the author Hara Kouki.

On Sunday 24th October the Iranian state radio announced that new restrictions were imposed upon 12 social sciences that are considered to be based on Western intellectual currents and therefore incompatible with Islamic teachings. The list includes law, philosophy, management, psychology, political science and the two disciplines that appear to trouble more the leadership of the country-women’s studies and human rights. In 1980, Iran closed down universities for two years to get rid of partisan students of political groups, while last year it was again the university students who played the major role in mounting an opposition against the country’s disputed presidential election. Western media report that the rights to free inquiry and dissent that ‘have allowed Western universities to flourish and vault ahead of the Islamic world’, were thought of as leading to religious doubts according to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.[1]

On Thursday 9th December Britain’s parliament voted on a proposal to raise university tuition fees significantly- almost tripling them- as part of a continuing set of austerity programs two years after the banking crisis that revealed structural flaws in the global financial system. The ‘Browne’ report declares that ‘higher education matters because it drives innovation and economic transformation…helps to produce economic growth, which in turn contributes to national prosperity’, signalling the privatisation of the arts, humanities and social sciences in England and the retreat of the state from financial responsibility for those areas. Philosophy, history, art, literature will now receive no government funding at all and will be driven into irreversible decline, in a new understanding of universities simply as engines of economic prosperity and as agencies for equipping future employees to earn higher salaries.[2]

This dismantling of the public character of higher education is overwhelming, and yet, from another point of view, hardly surprising. And indeed, productivity, efficiency and consumer satisfaction are the dominant criteria for appreciating the world around us; it makes sense, then, to withdraw state funding from the arts and the humanities, which do not earn their bread, and give priority to fields of knowledge that relate directly with a state’s economy, produce results every man or woman can recognize and enable students to move forward to a decent life during this times of labour and financial uncertainty.[3] What can you say to the tax payer who wonders ‘What am I getting for my money from a program in Byzantine art?’, or, to a kid asking ‘What good does a program in comparative literature do me?’ Well, nothing really. The intrusion of the market principle into further areas of social life is no longer implicit, not even cynical; it is just more than ever irreversible, the only intangible given, the only possibility of survival. In voting for this report at the same time as students were violently clashing with police forces, what was actually dismantled was the possibility of believing that things can change radically, that the flow of events can be reversed, that a more just and free society can be created, and most important of all, that it’s worth fighting for such a purpose.

In removing funding from the humanities, those changes undermine those studies that enable citizens to understand who they are, what they might be, what is going on around them, knowledge that is part of what everyone needs to reflect upon; in adopting this new paradigm of higher education, governments around Europe[4] produce a new kind of university as provider of services and a new type of citizen, insecure and fearful; in ignoring resistance and rejecting intellectual traditions, the adoption of the British report institutionalizes an unprecedented feeling of massive helplessness. This world is unequal and unjust and there is little we can do about it- this is a reality cast upon us as a super natural phenomenon, as solid as the Iranian religious fundamentalism condemned in the Western media.

At the very end,  if modernity is belief in human agency and critical ability towards ourselves, dogmatism and power, then, both the Iranian and the British educational reform signal, each in its own very different way, a negation of modernity.

For more on modernity, especially as related with educational reforms in Europe, see IME Project ‘Identities and Modernities in Europe’.



[4] See anti-CPE reforms in France in 2006,  protests against the ‘Bologna Process’ and privatisation of higher education in Greece in 2007-8, against planned budget for higher education in Bulgaria in November and current protests against Gelmini law in Italy