David Lammy, the Higher Education Minister, used a key speech today to launch a “defence” of the arts and humanities and their place in higher education.
Addressing the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, Mr Lammy argued that the arts and humanities were no less important than science and technology, adding that he wanted to move beyond the “sterility” of a “two cultures” debate.
“I want instead to affirm the fact that education in the arts and humanities, no less than in the sciences, is among the main factors that define British culture and British identity in the 21st century,” he said.
“It is an indispensable component of the glue that holds this country together and without which we cannot truly flourish.
“In that sense, I want to advocate a truly liberal-arts education. I want to argue in favour of a modern take on the broad medieval conception of higher learning, in which the study of language or music should sit happily side by side with the study of maths or science.”
Mr Lammy’s comments came amid concerns about the creation of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which oversees universities and strongly emphasises the “economic value” of higher education.
He acknowledged that “at present, and for entirely understandable reasons, we all tend to stress the economic arguments for higher education and the employment skills it confers”.
However, Mr Lammy added that it was “too easy” to move from that fact to seeing higher education as something divided between what is “useful” and what is not.
“All subjects are useful economically, socially, in their own right and, increasingly, in combination,” he said, adding that claims that some subjects were more “useful” than others were out of date.
While future jobs would not be created without the skills of arts and social science graduates as well as those of scientists and engineers, basing arguments about the value of these subjects on that missed “much that is really important”, he said.
Mr Lammy stressed that there was truth in the view that the arts are good for democracy because they foster critical thinking and debating skills.
In addition, the creative industries depend on them and they help to create “a sense of common culture”, he said.
The minister went on to say that higher education should be seen as part of the vanguard of social transformation thanks to the advent of more “enlightened” admissions policies and a greater emphasis on outreach.
The sector plays “a major role” in creating a common understanding of what distinguishes the just from the unjust, and gives people the tools to question what they’re told critically and make up their own minds on the basis of evidence, he said.
Universities also have a responsibility to maintain the “delicate balance” between treating students as customers and citizens, and giving them the tools for work and for active participation in society.
Mr Lammy also claimed that the boundaries between academic disciplines were breaking down in an increasingly complex world, so new ways should be sought to encourage dialogue between different branches of knowledge.
“In that sense, I think we need to revert to where we started from. Art and science were never originally seen as separate. What was valued was the way of thinking, the critical approach and questioning mind,” he said.
The minister added that the Government has tried hard to encourage the arts and humanities, and cited increases in student numbers and research funding in support of his claim.
He concluded: “My defence of the arts and humanities and their place in liberal-arts education isn’t based mainly on their economic value or what prospects they can offer graduates – although both are substantial. The main importance of a liberal-arts approach lies in the fact that it is by its very essence democratic.
“It can’t exist without debate, contradiction, difference and the acceptance of difference, just as a healthy democratic society can’t exist without those things.”
Geoffrey Crossick, warden of Goldsmiths, University of London, and a former head of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, applauded Mr Lammy’s speech, describing it as a “powerful and thoughtful” affirmation of the importance of the arts and humanities, universities, education and research and the breadth of their contribution to society.
He said it was “very timely,” especially in the context of the creation of BIS.
“There were inevitable anxieties when that was announced - universities and research were moving into a business department, as if that was what universities and research were essentially about. The minister has argued powerfully against that interpretation.”
However, Professor Crossick also suggested that there were some gaps between the vision set out by Mr Lammy and some aspects of government policy.
While the government deserved “huge credit” for establishing the AHRC and for putting resources into arts and humanities research, the decision to protect science and technology in the last research assessment exercise took money away from research in the arts and humanities, he pointed out.
“That was not helpful. We need to work on these issues. We also need to work on the fact that knowledge transfer of research is based on science and technology models at the moment – this is again, not friendly to the arts and humanities,” Professor Crossick said.
Professor Crossick said that universities were heading for “difficult times” and warned that there was “a great danger” in focusing too narrowly on economic and short term issues.
“In times of hardship, luxuries are dispensable and there is a great fear that the arts and humanities might count as luxuries. But the arts and humanities are not luxuries, as the minister just powerfully argued.”
Professor Crossick agreed that science and the arts had much in common, but said “it doesn’t always feel like it these days.”
He said science, technology, maths and engineering (STEM) and the arts and humanities were too often seen as occupying separate spheres.
“We need to wake up, and acknowledge that academic disciplines occupy the same broad territory,” he said.
“We must stop thinking of STEM on the one hand and arts and humanities on the other. Then we will avoid the danger of seeing one as the essence and the other as a luxury.”
Professor Crossick welcomed the focus of Mr Lammy’s speech on education, rather than skills.
“In many ways we have trapped ourselves within the language of skills – it has replaced education in so much of the discourse and yet the minister’s speech was really about education. He has given us back the rounded graduate,” he said.
UK university education, Professor Crossick said, produced graduates with imagination and flexibility, who could think critically, and were engaged, imaginative, flexible and analytical.
It was important to remember that universities educated graduates for jobs that had not yet been invented, he said.