Part of the joy of holding any sort of position of academic leadership is the need to respond quickly and imaginatively to unexpected bits of randomness appearing out of a clear blue sky. This week it was our student newspaper publishing a story about whether arts students get value for money for their student fees; they’d acquired some figures from the university under a Freedom of Information request, and divided a total for teaching expenditure in each department by the student numbers, yielding a figure for ‘spend per head’ that could be compared with the standard £9000 fee. Not surprisingly, arts students were revealed by this calculation to be ‘subsidising’ scientists to the tune of many thousands of pounds per year – with one striking exception: Classics students appeared second in the table, just after Clinical Dentistry, apparently subsidised by everyone else by more than £6K pa.
Once we’d got over the hysterical giggling, it was imperative to work out what on earth was going on so as to demand a correction, in hope of preventing the appearance of an angry, pitchfork-wielding mob of disgruntled English and History students from marching on the department. Thankfully, the explanation was easy to spot: they’d divided the figure for teaching spend by the number of Classics BA students, forgetting that we also teach rather larger numbers of Ancient History and Classical Studies students – once those are added to the equation, we’re right back down amongst the other arts subjects. This point was communicated, corrections have been published (the story linked to above has been revised), and we simply await the official response of the university to the story as a whole; I have a nasty feeling that the serious point the newspaper wanted to make will be undermined by this rather obvious error in their calculations, so that all their figures can be dismissed as dubious.
What I find most interesting about the whole affair is what it may say about popular ideas of Classics & Ancient History as a discipline. Why did the journalists not find it just a little strange that this subject should apparently cost almost as much to teach as Dentistry, and more than Chemistry, Physics or Veterinary Science? We don’t have labs full of expensive equipment, we don’t have to be insured heavily against the risk of us blowing up half the university precinct, we don’t need enormous amounts of computing power or close supervision while we work on human subjects. Obviously we do insist that all our Greek and Latin texts are bound in calf leather with gold leaf, and brought to us on velvet cushions by lightly-oiled library slaves, but that wouldn’t account for the whole of the financial discrepancy.
Why did no one think to question the figure? One can only speculate, but it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that this reflects underlying prejudices about the elitism of Classics, the idea that it is basically a luxurious indulgence for a wealthy elite, that expects to be subsidised by ‘lesser’ subjects. Perhaps they imagined that we send all our students out to Greece or Italy on a Grand Tour once a year (if only we could…), or that we persist with an Oxbridge-style tutorial system of small groups meeting once a week to wrestle with prose composition and the like, where everyone else has had to move to a less personal system. Should we blame Donna Tartt’s Secret History, or the dominance of Oxbridge-educated classicists in the media, or the extent to which student intake is skewed towards the privately educated (at least for traditional Classics, rather than AH or CS)? I really don’t know. But if this is indeed the popular image of the subject, we have a problem…