Leader: Stars wanted to give fillip to arts

February 6, 2004

As top-up fees become more likely, whole disciplines, as well as individual universities, are looking ahead to gauge the impact. The received wisdom, echoed in the concerns of Ian Smith, managing director of Oracle, is that science and technology will be most at risk. Student demand is already dropping and, so the argument goes, state intervention will be needed to protect the economy. But is there a special case to be made for science, or are other subjects as valuable and as vulnerable?

The numbers taking the hard sciences at A level have been dwindling since long before fees of any kind were introduced. Computing and other IT-related subjects are in decline, but only in relation to the boom days of dotcom optimism. Bursaries of the type promised by the Institute of Physics are naturally welcome, but they are not going to produce more sixth-form scientists or turn the heads of those who see a more fulfilling (or lucrative) career path opening up through media studies or sports science. Initiatives such as the ambassadors scheme may be more effective in the long run.

If the "market" in higher education points students even more towards courses with the best employment rates, it is the arts and humanities that should be concerned. All the subjects with the lowest proportion of students going straight into graduate-type jobs are in this area, not the sciences. Physics and chemistry sit solidly in the top half of the table, along with the various branches of engineering. Yet the arts and humanities feed the creative industries, which have been among the big successes of the UK economy. And while most of their subjects are thriving, the effect of higher fees is unknown and some - modern languages in particular - are already in trouble. Despite the high profile of leading figures in the arts, they do not have the same lobbying power as the sciences. Where are the stars who will champion their old disciplines before the fees die is cast?

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