Arts research is a driver, not a spotter

February 19, 2015

I read David Oldfield’s article with a mixture of irritation and disbelief (“You’re here to teach. Save the trainspotting for the weekend”, Opinion, 12 February). Oldfield’s assumption that his personal experience of practices and interests within the field of art history at one institution applies to research across all arts and humanities subjects is deeply flawed.

I work in an institution that covers much of the arts and humanities spectrum. It is worth noting that our research includes activities such as redesigning the interior layout of the London ambulance, something one could safely assume will be appreciated (although indirectly) by a larger audience than the specialists whom Oldfield mentions in his article. Much of our staff research is involved with important contemporary issues such as the strengthening of our creative industries and manufacturing base, improving the built environment and infrastructure, and creating high-quality employment and working conditions. Although this research provides “good course material”, it also directly impacts our society as a whole.

It may be, as Oldfield claims, that undergraduate art history students at the University of Cambridge are recruited on the basis of their general intellectual skills only. Our master’s and doctoral graduates are employed across the creative industries, or offered finance to start their own companies, on the basis of also having a high level of specialist skills in their area of expertise. I would contend that this is also the case for undergraduates and postgraduates from many other art colleges across the UK.

Peter Oakley
Research leader, School of Material
Royal College of Art


Teaching without research would result in a Groundhog Day culture in the arts and humanities. Curricula would be static, and academics would simply recycle that congealed body of learning. What point is there in students doing PhDs, some minister of withholding funding would be stirred to ask, if they are never going to “use” them? And what is the point, really, in teaching hobbies? Why arts education? Do we need to fund a coterie of trainspotters? I fear that Oldfield may have played into the hands of science, technology, engineering and mathematics essentialists with the trainspotting analogy.
Jed Chandler

Times Higher Education free 30-day trial

Please login or register to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Reader's comments (1)

Peter Oakley's indignant letter completely misses the point - and simply adds fuel to the "humanties research is self-indulgent trainspotting" trope in his last paragraph in the process. Of course practical design research has material impact - mostly commercial, but yay, that's great about the ambulances too. But that was, obviously, not what Oldfield was talking about.

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most commented