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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Elitist English?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

An article in The Guardian has just caught my eye, reporting on a study that shows that the wealthiest students dominate the arts and humanities, with poorer students opting for science or vocational degrees. The figures on which the report is based, provided by the Sutton Trust, are not quite as extreme as the paper's feature writer would like to make out:
31% of those who graduated in 2008 with degrees in history or philosophy were the children of senior managers – the socio-economic group with the highest income. Across all English university courses, an average of 27% of graduates were from this group.
Language graduates were also disproportionately from the wealthiest homes, with 30% from the highest income group. In comparison, non-arts and humanities courses – with the exception of medicine and dentistry – had far fewer students from the highest-income group. Just 17% for education, 22% for computer sciences and 23% for business studies were from the wealthiest homes.

That 4% difference between those children of senior managers who graduated in history, and those offspring of top professionals who graduated in other subjects, is hardly a statistical gulf. Nevertheless, it does chime with my own experience - both as a student and as a university teacher - that the arts (I'm talking English specifically, of course) attract a certain type of student.

In my own personal experience, coming from a middle class home with two parents who had already been to university, I was always encouraged to study what I enjoyed, which might or might not be most valuable as an ultimate career option. As I moved to A-levels, my college's timetable allowed me to study either physics or history; in the end, I opted for history, which was essential to my application to read English at a top university. It is not hard to imagine that, coming from a different background, I would have been pushed towards the subject that might see me enter university with a vocational career in mind, rather than towards arts A-levels which, at the time, would have had an uncertain exit point from university even if they were pleasurable to do. With different parents, I could have been another victim of the UK's unusual funnelling in further and higher education, which sees UK students forced to specialise in their subjects far earlier than their continental and transatlantic counterparts. It is easy to imagine A-level students who love English but who happen to be good at a science subject being pushed by their parents into studying the latter, when if they were allowed to study a broader spectrum of subjects for a longer period, the students themselves rather than parental background would determine which subjects they enjoy, which should be a factor in which subject to choose at university.

In the present day reality, though, as a teacher I do perceive that students who start English degrees tend to come from a narrow social class mix. At the top-ten university at which I teach (which shall of course remain nameless), across the arts and humanities 48% of students came from independent schools, whereas only 33% of students in the sciences came from that educational background. In English, an astonishing 65% of students came from independent schools. Our tutorials echo with the voices of privilege. Ben Knights, director of the English subject centre, has worried that "There could be a progressive gentrification of arts and humanities." I agree - although my fears here are tempered by my experiences teaching for the Open University, which attracts a much more diverse mix of students.

But regardless of the facts here, we do run the risk of creating a fallacy if we draw an association between the social class of students and the types of degree they do. The Guardian article (and many of the commentators below it) seem to be making the pejorative assumption that if wealthy students (or students of wealthy parents) are doing arts degrees then the degrees themselves must be self-indulgent and ultimately worthless. This is entirely false.

For a start, the arts sector is a large scale employer in the UK. According to Prospects, the UK's official careers website, 6.2% of graduates went into careers as arts, culture and media professionals; marketing, sales and advertising (another common destination for arts' graduates) comprised another 4%. According to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the creative arts sector employs 1.8 million people in the UK. Even assuming that not all jobs in this sector will require a traditional arts degree, it is clearly wrong to assume that the arts and humanities are soft and self-indulgent subjects which have no socio-economic benefit.

As for employment, although the present recession sees uncertain prospects for all graduates, 7.9% of Arts' graduates were unemployed six months after graduating, whereas 8.5% of science graduates were unemployed after the same period. Now, in the longer term it may be true that science graduates can expect to earn more than their arts counterparts, but again it is a myth that arts graduates are doing economically unviable subjects.

Supported by figures like these, it is vital that the economic case for the arts is made with conviction and clarity. In the past, a story about the class bias in degrees might simply be an ideological footnote to be picked up by a left-wing paper like The Guardian. But in the present economic climate, the stakes are much higher. Whitehall officials are considering slashing the Higher Education teaching budget by 75%. Having been told to protect "strategically important" subjects such as science and technology and engineering, budgets for subjects in the arts and humanities look likely to be hardest hit. Stories about the wealthy class of students these subjects attract will make them seem a tempting double-target, not only seen as strategically unimportant but also as an opportunity to bash the sons and daughters of all those wealthy but worthless bankers and lawyers, the liberal elites who got us into the recession in the first place.

Such tabloid prose is of course absurdly simplistic. But then so too are governments (I include New Labour here too) which bean counts the impact factors of university research, and the perceived direct correlation between the number of engineers and accountants in an economy, and gross domestic product which has become the sole measure of the success of our national culture.

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Posted by Alistair at 8:25 am


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