Leader: When the whip came down

Mr Willetts' professed love for the arts and humanities disciplines looks rather like discipline of another stripe entirely

February 2, 2012

When David Willetts said last summer that he was making it a priority to show the arts and humanities "how much we love them", he probably had the best of intentions.

But those words may have come back to haunt him this week with the release of final application data for 2012 entry, which cast him not as Mr Darcy but as Miss Whiplash.

For a sector in which demand outstrips (capped) supply, an overall fall in applicants in England of 9.9 per cent is not a disaster. But behind the headline is a more nuanced picture.

In the worst-hit discipline, non-European languages, numbers are down 21.5 per cent. There are also above-average falls in combined arts (16.1 per cent), social studies (12.1 per cent) and European languages (11.2 per cent). Tough love indeed.

There are shocks, too, at the institutional level. Applications to Goldsmiths, University of London, which bills itself as "the UK's leading creative university", have fallen by 22 per cent; those to the University for the Creative Arts are down 29.7 per cent; and the University of the Arts London's numbers have declined 17.4 per cent. It is safe to assume that none of them is welcoming this display of le vice anglais.

In the 14 months since the fee hike was approved, much of the debate has focused on the impact on poorer students, but this week's figures throw up some surprises. Measured on the basis of local participation rates, applicant numbers have dipped more sharply in the "most advantaged" areas than they have in the least advantaged. In absolute terms, applications from the latter are still far lower, but these data suggest that the predicted disaster for widening participation has not materialised. However, the screw is being turned elsewhere.

Sir Adam Roberts, president of the British Academy, tried to be positive in the wake of last summer's White Paper, saying that "provided student demand keeps up...humanities and social science courses will be increasingly desirable to universities as offerings". Writing in Times Higher Education this week he is far more pessimistic, warning that the study of languages, already in the doldrums, is under real threat. This should concern ministers regardless of their professed love for the humanities.

"For the UK to thrive globally, it has to have a deep-rooted understanding of languages and cultures across the world," Sir Adam says. "Given some of the economic and political developments of the past few years, it is worrying that we are actually reducing our capacity in, for example, Chinese and Arabic. We Brits are at risk of becoming a nation of monoglots in a world of polyglots."

His concerns are framed by our cover feature, which highlights the use of universities as tools of "soft power". For a country with ambitions to retain its international status in a changing world, it is extraordinarily short-sighted to undermine the provision of languages. Those who argue that the creative industries are among the UK's strongest assets will be equally concerned by the damage being done to their future skills base.

Few will believe that Mr Willetts intended to leave certain subjects in dire straits, and it may yet prove to be a temporary blip.

But for now the disciplines and institutions affected will feel less as though they are being whipped into shape and more as if they are being crushed under a Louboutin heel.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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