We expected much more

David Willetts, advocate for the arts? Nothing like it, accuses Sally Feldman

April 28, 2011

What has happened to David Willetts? Only a year ago many of us were rejoicing that at last an intellectual, a thinker, had been appointed universities and science minister. It was such a relief to be in the hands of someone who actually seemed to share our values. So his woeful record has been a bitter blow. In one year of government he's committed so many blunders that even journalists have given up the Two Brain references.

There was his hopelessly flawed prediction that few universities would charge the top tuition fee. Then he suggested that those who couldn't afford the higher prices could always find a cheaper option - contradicting his government's declared aims for greater inclusivity. And more recently came his bizarre attack on women, accusing feminism of being the greatest obstacle to social mobility.

But even worse is his betrayal of the arts, despite his often-declared appreciation of them, particularly crafts. "Learning and practice of any kind - and at any age - makes us healthier and happier," he pronounced, in his first speech as minister. "Learning - be it studying a subject or mastering a physical craft - promotes personal fulfilment and well-being."

Willetts is an admirer of the sociologist Richard Sennett who, in The Craftsman, makes the case for what he regards as an enduring, basic human impulse: the desire to do a job well for its own sake. "Craftsmanship cuts a far wider swath than skilled manual labour," he explains. "It serves the computer programmer, the doctor and the artist." To perform a craft well, whether it be playing the trumpet, sculpting from wood, wielding a camera or designing a dress, he maintains, requires a respect for materials and an expert command of tools.

Indeed, Sennett's portrayal of the craftsman could be applied to any university creative arts department, where students are urged not merely to put in Sennett's recommended 10,000 hours, but to seek new ways of making, new solutions and ideas.

Writing in The Daily Telegraph last year, Willetts came close to making a case for these subjects to be studied at university level. "That confident celebration of the craftsman as well as the academic is something our nation has lost, and which we need to recapture. Skills and craftsmanship are essential for rebalancing the economy away from its dependence on financial services."

So was this an assurance that our art and design, media and music subjects would be treasured? Not a bit of it. Not only has the teaching grant been withdrawn from all but STEM subjects, but Willetts recently revealed that he has no idea of the real costs of our practice-based subjects. Speaking at the British Academy, where he outlined his understanding of the current Higher Education Funding Council for England weightings, he explained, quite mistakenly, that Band C "covers subjects with a fieldwork element".

This does make you wonder if he's ever set foot in any of the universities teaching these subjects. If he had, he'd surely realise that the Band C funding is needed for fashion, craft and fine art workshops, animation suites, broadcasting, music and photography studios, as well as for specialist tools, materials, instruments and software: it is needed to support the very activities he has consistently praised and supported.

Rather than starving these disciplines, surely he should be championing them? It's hardly a shock to discover that the current Cabinet, most of whom studied at Oxford and Cambridge, are dismissive of these creative subjects and uniformly unaware of their place in contemporary higher education. Nor is it a great surprise that, with his Dickensian insistence on "facts, facts, facts", education secretary Michael Gove has eliminated the arts from the national curriculum, too. But we expected more from Willetts.

Can't he see that abandonment of the arts in education is also shortsightedly self-defeating? By any of the government's own measures, these subjects should be key to its strategy. It's well documented that the creative industries are vital for the economy. The most recent estimate, published in December 2010, is that they provide about 2 million jobs, and their 182,100 businesses account for nearly 9 per cent of all registered firms, contributing 5.6 per cent of the UK's gross value added.

But these industries also reinforce two further elements of the government's mission. In his latest book, Making is Connecting, my colleague David Gauntlett argues for the return of craft as a basis for happiness and personal fulfilment - the very well-being that the prime minister is so keen to measure. He goes on to claim that the ability to make and to create is key to the kind of social cohesion at the heart of the Tories' Big Society.

Sennett goes even further, arguing that craftsmanship is essential for true democracy. "Self-rule supposes the capacity of citizens to work collectively on objective problems, to suspect quick solutions," he declares. "We want to recover something of the spirit of the Enlightenment on terms appropriate for our time. We want the shared ability to work to teach us how to govern ourselves and to connect to other citizens on common ground."

You might have expected Willetts to have warmed to such a manifesto. Instead, this distinguished public figure, known for his forensic analytic skills, his independence of mind and his refusal to bow to dogma or lazy thinking, has become a watery apologist for a bottom-line philistinism that is consistently undermining the very principles he has always cherished.

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