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

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The Browne Review: Implications for the Arts

Thursday, October 14, 2010

This is one of a series of posts in which I respond to the Browne review of higher education funding and student finance. Other posts look at the implications of the Browne review for postgraduates, and at the possible impact on teaching and learning.

As one might expect of the former boss of an energy company that puts profit before the environment (namely BP), Browne appears to have looked at higher education with dollar signs in his eyes, seeing value in purely financial terms. The value of allowing young adults to immerse themselves for three years in a subject that they are passionate about; the value of the arts, humanities and social sciences in articulating human and moral behaviour; the value of practising the soft skills that underpin all knowledge (reading, digesting information, writing well) rather than specific, scientific knowledge in its own right - these are not values that can be easily quantified, tabulated, charted, counted, economised or budgeted. And so they are not the values which, according to Browne, public funding should pay to support.

As an indication of Browne's priorities, the word "business" occurs 22 times in the report; "science" occurs 6 times; "humanities" does not even appear. Page 27 of the Browne report makes damning reading for anyone concerned about the arts, humanities and social sciences:
There is a critical role for public investment even if students are investing more. There are clinical and priority courses such as medicine, science and engineering that are important to the well being of our society and to our economy. The costs of these courses are high and, if students were asked to meet all of the costs, there is a risk that they would choose to study cheaper courses instead. In our proposals, there will be scope for Government to withdraw public investment through HEFCE from many courses to contribute to wider reductions in public spending; there will remain a vital role for public investment to support priority courses and the wider benefts they create. 
The Faustian trade-off with increased tuition fees is that subjects like sciences typically have a higher infrastructure and teaching cost - more labs, more staff to supervise those labs - than the arts and humanities. In order to limit the price of courses like science and engineering, and hence not deter students from them, they will need some form of public subsidy. This will come by withdrawing funding from those subjects deemed to have no "wider benefits," namely the arts, humanities and social sciences.

I have dealt elsewhere on this blog with the demonstrably false assumption that subjects like these have no social or economic benefit. The creative industries employ 1.8 million in the UK, and if business is so in need of scientists, it is strange that twice as many graduates in science disciplines are unemployed compared to their arts counterparts. As the most recent Prospects survey, What Do Graduates Do?, noted, "Six months after graduation, art and design, media studies and performing arts graduates showed higher employment rates than the average for all first degree graduates (61.4%)."

For anyone who has a broad minded picture of what the UK economy is like, this is not surprising. As with UK universities as a whole, the arts is one area where the UK retains a world-leading status, in spite of underfunding compared to other developed countries. London, for example, is not only a hub for global finance, but for the international art market, publishing, media, advertising, and tourism. Nationally, the creative industries contribute £57 billion to the economy. The roots that underlie this activity are hidden and various - but one of the deepest is in academia. Without graduates who are trained to think creatively, to understand human psychology, to write, draw, paint, design, the creative industries will have to recruit elsewhere; without university teachers - human scientists - who are able to inspire, research and influence our understanding of human thought, politics and culture, we will lose that sense of direction and vision that gave us such social enterprises as the welfare state, or institutions like the BBC. What Browne sees as irrelevant courses, aimless undergraduates, and useless researchers cannot simply vanish, without the withering of one of the UK's most important economic outputs, and without the gradual decline of those millennia-old subjects through which we gain a greater understanding of what it means to be human, beyond quantifiable dollars and often with unforeseeable consequences.

However, to return to those numerical terms that former industrial chairmen can relate to, it is important to recognise that the arts and humanities clearly appeal to business in an indirect way. In my own subject, English, career destinations vary widely. Again, according to Prospects, 8.6% of English graduates go on to become managers; 7.4% enter marketing; 17% go to retail; 18.8% enter secretarial occupations. English students in these workplaces may not on a daily basis demonstrate their understanding of free indirect speech in Jane Austen, or the feminist values of The Color Purple. What they do use, however, are the soft skills that underpin many arts and humanities subjects: the ability to summarise a vast range of reading in concise and rhetorically confident essays (for which read, business reports); the confidence to argue a point in front a group of peers (for which read, making one's case in the board room); the ability to study independently, and to pursue their own research around a subject (for which read, low-maintenance employees).

Browne argues that a fifth of businesses report having a skills gap in their workforce. His report suggests that "there needs to be a closer fit between what is taught in higher education and the skills needed in the economy." However, the economy is not some static entity, but changes and shifts in unpredictable ways. Witness the current push to move away from banking and services, and back into manufacturing, or the advent of the green economy. Clearly, engineering or business graduates are capable of adapting to such changes. But for arts and humanities graduates, too, a degree is not just for three years, but for life. Those abilities inculcated through three years of close engagement with a particular subject are not fossilised in the brain so that the student who studies Austen or anthropology will only ever be able to have a career reading novels or living in the jungle; learning is, rather, an organic form which, once established at university, takes on its own life in the mind of the graduate, and which can be nurtured and adapted to new economic environments.

The other factor missing in this is students themselves. Last time I looked - as I did today in my tutorials - students are not cogs in a wider economic machine. They are individuals who bring to university a wide range of skills and abilities, who possess unique personalities, who pursue their subjects in ways that interest them. Some students, sadly, are not possessed of the brains to do maths or physics; they do not have the synaesthetic capacity to "see" the results of algebraic equations, as good mathematicians do, or the ability to write fluently in the language of computers. Some students, however, do possess a strangely refined empathy that marks them out from many of the general population, an ability that they choose to turn to the interpretation and understanding of human psychology in that vast database known as the novel; some students feel a peculiar sympathy with distant tribes in sub-Saharan Africa, and want to better understand their unique cultural behaviours. Are these students to be told that they must study engineering, not English, must be architects, rather than anthropologists, because their greater duty is to feed the beast known as the Gross Domestic Product?

Whilst tuition fees risk discriminating against students on the basis of their economic background, the equal but unacknowledged risk is of disenfranchising them on their basis of their brains, a kind of market determinism dominating the natural imperative that some people are better and more fulfilled studying and working in certain areas.

In spite of my rhetoric, which cannot help but become heated and defensive in the wake of a report like this, I am not anti-business. Neither am I suggesting that the arts and humanities ought to be of equal importance to the sciences. As someone whose research is in science and culture, I have been happy to lend my signature to  the Science is Vital campaign. I understand if some rebalancing of universities priorities is necessary in the wake of funding cuts and tuition fee rises, and as I wrote in my essay on The Value of an English PhD, the utilitarian socialist in me acknowledges that the arts and humanities often do a poor job of explaining their value, economic and otherwise, to the taxpaying public.

Nevertheless, the Browne report terrifies me for its utter disregard that these subjects might, behind all appearances, have a worth in our national life. The singular failure to mention the arts or humanities, those 22 appearances of the word "business" - this is the voice of the big businessman speaking, and being heard in government, at a time when the potential blindness of big business to human wellbeing - evidenced in banking crises or the environmental disaster in Browne's former company -  ought to be something that concerns us all. To close our eyes to the human disciplines, to pretend they do not even exist in a university, is to forget that the good human is defined by more than money in the pocket. The wealth of the mind is also something worth possessing, and we ought to be prepared as a society to reward students by providing them with three years education in those subjects that most enliven theirs.

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Posted by Alistair at 7:42 am


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