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

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Do the Arts and Humanities Make Money for Universities?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Further to my discussion of the fallout upon the arts from the explosive Browne review of university tuition fees in UK Higher Education, there is an interesting debate going on in the US Chronicle of Higher Education, sparked by English Professor Robert Watson, about whether the arts and humanities actually make money for universities (subscription only Chronicle article here; free reprint from UCLA here). This debate may well have lessons for the UK.

In the US, high student tuition fees have long been a feature of the education system. And, with the recession and budget cuts, funding streams are likewise being focused on business-friendly courses, and diverted from arts faculties. The view of the President of UCLA bears uncanny similarities to the tone of Browne's report, suggesting that the arts must be sacrificed for more applied subjects:
Many of our, if I can put it this way, businesses are in good shape. We're doing very well there. Our hospitals are full, our medical business, our medical research, the patient care. So, we have this core problem: Who is going to pay the salary of the English department? We have to have it. Who's going to pay it in sociology, in the humanities? And that's where we're running into trouble.
As I pointed out in my response to Browne last week, there is plenty of evidence that arts and humanities graduates enter work and, armed with allegedly useless degrees, actually contribute a great deal to the economy. Thus if universities have a role in wider economic life, arts and humanities departments merit public investment, regardless of the local fiscal demands of staff within universities. However, what struck me in the US debate were the details about how much arts faculties actually contribute to universities' internal economies.

Responding to his President, Robert N. Watson, Professor of English at UCLA, did some sums for his university:
Based on the latest annual student-credit hours, fee levels, and total general-fund expenditures, the humanities [at UCLA] generate over $59 million in student fees, while spending only $53.5 million (unlike the physical sciences, which came up several million dollars short in that category). The entire teaching staff of Writing Programs, which is absolutely essential to UCLA's educational mission, has been sent firing notices, even though the spreadsheet shows that program generating $4.3 million dollars in fee revenue, at a cost of only $2.4 million.
This corresponds with evidence at the national level:
Of the 21 units at the University of Washington, the humanities and, to a lesser degree, the social sciences are the only ones that generate more tuition income than 100 percent of their total expenditure. Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, recently cited a University of Illinois report showing that a large humanities department like English produces a substantial net profit, whereas units such as engineering and agriculture run at a loss. The widely respected Delaware Study of Instructional Costs and Productivity shows the same pattern.
Useful courses such as medicine are not propping up liberal arts courses that are quaint accessories in a market-driven university. Quite the opposite, in fact: with their comparatively low infrastructure overheads, arts courses actually make money for their universities, making more from tuition fee income than science and medicine courses can from business spin-offs or research grants.

Given that Browne's higher education funding shake-up will approximate the US system, we can expect a similar scenario to pertain in the UK. Thus the case of the US should provide us with a pertinent warning: to lose public funding for arts courses now, in favour of science-based degrees, as Browne recommends, will be to risk the closure of departments that in future could actually generate income for universities.

There are other similarities too. In the UK, higher education looks set to suffer around 75% cuts from its block funding grant from HEFCE. Because the sciences can secure more funding from research grants, much of the HEFCE money goes on supporting less research intensive courses, often within the arts and humanities. Thus it is these courses that will suffer most as vice-chancellors tighten their belts, especially if there is a lag between the HEFCE funding cut and the increased tuition fees that should make up the difference. Now replace HEFCE for "discretionary budget" in Watson's report, and the parallels between the US and UK are clear:
Yet because the discretionary budget in humanities goes almost entirely for teaching staff, across-the-board cuts hit our instruction especially hard. The dean of humanities' office at UCLA warned a few months ago that the proposed budget would require programs in this division — already the leanest in staff per faculty — to fire most of their lecturers and teaching assistants, making our curriculum unsustainable.
In quoting the above, I am aware that I seem to be walking headlong into a trap. If public funding of universities is to be slashed, and if tuition fees from popular subjects like English can actually make money for universities, surely this is the best possible argument for raising fees and enabling a higher education marketplace. If students really want to study English at £7000 a year, let them. The English professor can keep his job, supported by his students, whilst public research funding can be targeted at those subjects with the most obvious public benefits, namely science, technology, engineering and medicine.

However, the example of the US illustrates precisely my core point about the Browne review: that to see universities through the eyes of the businessman is to risk ignoring those more subterranean features that make arts and humanities degrees attractive to students, to employers, and to the wider economy. Once a degree programme in the arts and humanities is slashed and burned in funding cuts, it will be unlikely to rise from the ashes. Thus if we absolutely must to enter a higher education marketplace and indebt our young for the basic privilege of learning, we have to make sure that we maintain an open mind with regards to the types of courses we make available to them. As I said in my response to the Browne review, it is naive to assume that the arts perform no economic function in the UK. Likewise, the UCLA President appears to have automatically - and wrongly - assumed that arts faculties prop up the sciences, when the reverse is the case. If university and government leaders simply follow business hunches without looking at the evidence, they will cause UK universities to eliminate arts courses which could actually prove popular and moneymaking in a higher education marketplace, and which are already significant contributors to the wider economy.

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Posted by Alistair at 9:48 am


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think this is an interesting example of people with power using their 'gut' feel to make huge, lasting decisions--without any data to back up their decisions.

The 'gut feel' perhaps tells you that science has economic value, therefore education in science has economic value. But this is really coming from a particular ideological view of education and its value. So it completely neglects the facts.

Wide consultation before such decisions are made would avoid these mistakes. But fundamentally, these administrators are being driven by a certain agenda that I think perhaps do not recognize. It is hard for me to believe they explicitly embrace such an anti-education agenda but perhaps I am naive.

9:25 pm  

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